Sunday, December 30, 2012

Music for Baby in the Womb and Out

Many parents ask about music for babies still developing in the womb.  The idea that playing classical music for baby will make him more intelligent is so widespread that it has even been featured in movies and cartoons.  However, based on what I've read, while it may be good for baby to be hearing classical music throughout gestation and into infant-hood, this is mainly based only on anecdotal evidence.

While, admittedly, scientists can't really agree on what is going on, and scientific studies are inconclusive, there is general agreement that music has a positive impact of some sort - even just to make baby's neurons fire more often. This TED talk discusses babies learning in the womb in general. Many mothers will attest to babies responding to music before and after birth. There was also a study done that was well publicized around 2001 (the actual study is not available in full online) about babies recognizing music they were played while in the womb even at age one, but the study only tested 11 babies and doesn't seem to have had a control so scientists will generally not site it as scientific (and I have to agree). However, that doesn't mean the anecdotal evidence is completely worthless. This article sums up the commonly agreed upon ideas about music in the womb by the general populace - even if it is still theoretical and anecdotal. It mentions the belief that children will remember what they hear in the womb - based on that same study that only tested 11 children. Keep in mind the article is written by some one who wants to sell prenatal music to expectant parents.

This article speaks more about why the sound does not need to be loud for baby to hear it as well as the difference between what anecdotal evidence has told us about gestational music and scientific studies. Again, the anecdotal evidence seems to be there, but scientific study has been inconclusive.
It is important to be careful about how loud the music is. While sounds are muffled (not unlike what you hear of sounds from the pool deck when you swim), amniotic fluid does conduct sound nicely. Baby can hear you when you are just speaking. I've read one article that says no louder than 70 decibels and another that says no louder than 50. The article I linked agrees with the 50 decibel limit.

I recently read in one article, but also remember discussion about Rap and Rock within the context of the conversation. Many believe these genre's of music aren't generally recommended because some believe that exposure to chaotic and discordant music can have a negative effect. I would argue there are examples of classical music that are a bit "chaotic and discordant" while some songs from other genres are not at all "chaotic or discordant." Even Beethoven's second symphony has quite a few discordant notes representing the hiccups and burps he frequently struggled with due to gastrointestinal difficulty. Stravinsky is well known for using discordant combinations in his music. When I was pregnant with my little one, "When September Ends" by Greenday was on the radio a lot, so she heard it a lot while I drove to and from work. I swear she started dancing every time she heard it and she still loves the song.

Use your judgement. Baby can hear you, music and whatever you are playing and doing through much of the pregnancy - even without any specific effort needed. If you want to do the music during gestation thing, try to choose music that is generally peaceful or up-beat - something that relaxes mom - and just play it on your stereo, but don't get particularly concerned about "perfect choices." There doesn't really seem to be strong evidence one or way or another about the music making a huge difference. Most likely, it impacts the child's ability to relax more than how smart or musically inclined they will be if anything at all.

In order to decide upon music for your child and its appropriateness, I suggest the following four criteria:

  1. Is there language in the lyrics (particularly in the chorus or other repetitious portions) that would be embarrassing to teachers, other parents, my spouse, myself and others if the lyrics were repeated in mixed company.  Part of this consideration includes obvious "bad language" considerations, but it also includes listening for any portions that might be "overly educational" about topics inappropriate for very young listeners.  For example, I don't think my very young child needs to be exposed to ideas about suicide, explicit sexual imagery (even when only depicted in words) or themes of violence - Your own sensitivities may be the same or different as those of your neighbor's or child's friends so until my child was old enough to understand that certain topics are only for certain audiences, I was probably overly careful just for the sake of refraining from accidentally educating our neighbor's kids about something for which they were not ready, even if my child was.  If a song you love does include lyrics you think are questionable for your child, consider lyric-free covers for while your child is with you.  Lullaby renditions of . . . and the Vitamin String Quartet have both been great resources for this for me.  Links to both resources can be found here.
  2. Does my kid respond to the music and what kind of response is it?  Music does impact mood - if I notice that a particular piece of music - or genre of music seems to create grumpiness or startle her, I nix the music from the list of things I play frequently while she is around.  Conversely, if my child seems soothed by a certain piece of music I put it in the "soothing" play list, Or if a song is something that brings out a cheerful energy, I'll put it in the "play time" play list.  One or two plays through a song with a more negative impact will not do any sort of lasting damage, just as one or two play throughs of a classical piece will not have any lasting impact on a child's intelligence.
  3. Kids learn from repetition and children's music has a lot of that repetition.  This probably also explains why they tend to like bubble-gum rock and pop so much.  Whatever you do, don't leave Children's music out of the mix.  Old lullabies often come from what was once considered typical music and can introduce your child to old folk themes, stories, characters and literary devices that engage imagination and learning.  Many children's songs are also accompanied with movements to learn.  These movements can be fine or gross motor and are very important in the development of these related skills which will later lead to other skills important in both physical and mental development.  Finally, many children's songs impart important academic information such as the alphabet, days of the week, colors and numbers.
  4. Do I like the song At All?  If listening to the song over and over is going to make me tense and grumpy, it is not in my child's best interest to have it playing.  My bad mood is not conducive to positive and patient interactions with my child.
  5. Variety.  Filling the house (or car) with a variety of genres of music keeps things fresh and introduces my daughter to the wide variety of pleasing sounds available to her.  While the going thought is that Classical Music is best, I guess I interpreted the idea that music not be "chaotic and discordant" differently than many, so I figure if it feels chaotic or too discordant to her, she'll show me it isn't good for her by her reaction to the piece.  Although not classical, Enya, Greenday, Michael Jackson, Ella Fitzgerald, The Beatles, The Clash, Metallica and Bob Marley all have examples of perfectly organized and concordant music in their libraries of musical creations.
Further searches  on this site will reveal articles such as "Baby and Children's Music Alternatives" which will help with resources for finding a variety of genres of great music kids can enjoy too, and "Fairy Tale Music Classics" (and other articles like it) to help choose great Classical pieces to use to introduce children to the classical genre in a fun way, and even lists of "musts" such as "A Baker's Dozen Beatles Songs"

Thursday, December 20, 2012

Writing Tasks and ADHD: Editing Tricks

These tricks are actually very likely to help anyone in the final phases of editing and polishing a piece of writing.  These tricks have helped me miss fewer mistakes and rely less on others to get my own editing done - of course, I do still miss a few things here and there, but who doesn't?

  1. Read your finished piece out loud (even if no one else is in the room).
  2. Read your finished piece backwards.  I know it sounds weird, but it slows down your brain so it really focuses on each word and the punctuation.
  3. Focus on editing for one thing at a time:  Look for punctuation problems in one read through, spelling in another and flow in another.  If you catch something you weren't looking for, circle it, move on and actually fix it later.
  4. Use your spell and grammar checker in addition to using your brain.
  5. Enlist a friend or family member.

Sunday, December 16, 2012

Sleepless in Elementary

Kids go through periods where sleep is hard to come by from time to time.  At times like this it can really be a struggle to sleep.  Whether it is falling asleep or staying asleep that is the problem it can be especially troublesome when children can't get to sleep (or get back to sleep) and don't have alternatives that won't wake the whole family.


Even during the primary or elementary school years, it is a good idea to use a bed-time routine most of the time (in fact, it is really what is best for us adults too).  Routine helps your child's brain start shutting down and send signals to the body that is time to chill out and get ready for sleeping.  You do not need to stick to exactly the same routine you used when your child was two, but a routine that includes hygienic care (such as brushing teeth) followed by some sort of calming ritual, like bed-time stories or independent reading is a typical way to go.

Screen time seems to reduce the ability of the brain to move into sleep so I've heard it suggested that no computer, video or TV for at least half an hour before attempting sleep is a good plan.  Along the same lines, foods and drinks (other than water) aren't a great idea in the hour leading up to bed as they too, can reduce the likelihood of a quick and easy transition into the Land of Nod.

Make sure your child has a "nest."  Bed should be clean and comfortable, the right temperature for your child, and calm.  If your child likes soft music playing and it helps - go for it, if your child is the type that needs silence in order to fall asleep - do your best to give him or her that too.

Have a bed-time that you stick to pretty religiously most of the time.  When kids (and adults) go to bed at the same time night after night, the brain is better able to predict when you should start to feel sleepy.  It helps to set and keep that internal clock set and ticking in a healthful way.

A Brief Reassurance: 

Sometimes, there can be a shift in hormones (they aren't only for adolescence), a growth spurt, shifting adult teeth as they get ready to push baby teeth out of the way, and even subtle changes in stress level not easily detected even by the child can cause temporary bouts of insomnia.   A growth spurt in learning that causes a child's brain to be over-stimulated can also cause problems.  It makes it hard for kids to down-shift at night (routine helps with this).  You'll both need to know sleep is elusive and there isn't a lot that can be done about it at times.  When this happens, making sure your child is at least getting good hearty and healthy meals and a little quiet time (squeezed in right after school perhaps?) can help keep moods good and exhaustion at bay.

Less sleep isn't necessarily a problem for kids during certain periods of growth and often these short periods of insomnia will pass - depending on the route cause (which none of you may ever know). If your child is losing enough sleep that he or she is suffering fatigue because of the loss of sleep it can sometimes help to encourage a short afternoon nap.  Something in the way of 20-40 minutes once or twice, much longer or for multiple days in a row and you are setting everyone up for another night of sleeplessness (unless we are speaking about someone under the age of about four or five). 


Lets say you have a son that can't sleep and is waking others up during the night when he starts playing and making noise.  Here is a series of steps you might try in order to engage the child in problem solving with you.  The advantage of involving the child in finding solutions is that he might be able to give insight into what is keeping him awake, that he learns about the problem solving process through your modeling and his practice during the process, and when kids are engaged in finding solutions for problems, they are more likely to be invested in making the solution work.

  1. Ask him what he thinks is up with the not sleeping thing when it is daylight and just you can talk. Do this when you have time to sit and listen. He very likely doesn't really know what is up and is playing at night because he is bored since he can't sleep. Allow him some time to think through things. You may need to sit silently waiting for answers to questions like, "why do you think you aren't able to sleep."
  2. Don't take him at his word when he offers up a first answer - it is very likely it is a red herring. He wants to please you by giving you an answer, but he doesn't really know how to do that so he is giving you the first answer that comes to mind. Respond with "hmm. That's interesting. Anything else?" or some other very open-ended question. Give him some time again - maybe there really isn't anything else, but give him some time. If he says "I don't know" and still doesn't know after thinking about for a minute or two, either he really doesn't know, or there is something bothering him but he's not ready to tell you. Don't push.
  3. Once he offers up a more thought out answer (or you are convinced he really doesn't have an additional one), ask him what he thinks might help him sleep more. Again, you might need to give him some time. As you allow this time for thought and are quietly listening, if there is something he is anxious about, you are demonstrating that you aren't mad and just want to help and building trust. He will come around.
  4. Point out that his current way of dealing with being awake at night is preventing everyone else from getting sleep and how unfair that is. State this using an "I" such as, "I'm worried none of you are getting enough sleep, but it is especially unfair to your brothers who could be." Then follow your statement with what you would like without giving an answer, "Is there a way you could do something that would be calm and more likely to help you get back to sleep sooner as well as allow your brothers to continue to sleep even though you are awake?" Perhaps he would like a book light and some books to read. Perhaps he could have some headphones and some calming music to listen to. Who knows what he'll offer up. Listen to it.
  5. Leave the conversation not having made any decisions. "Lets continue to think about this and brainstorm and then we'll talk about it again same time tomorrow and make some decisions about what to do." He might think of something else while you are all "away from it" to add to the conversation because he will feel less pressure when not engaged in the conversation in the moment. You can use the time to consider options he brought up and options you've considered and what you think is a realistic solution and what won't work.
  6. When you meet again, let him speak first. After you've heard anything else he has to add propose your plan - that hopefully uses elements of what he has said. Put the plan into action and see if it helps. Give the plan at least a week. If it isn't working, revisit and start again.
 As long as he isn't keeping the rest of the house up, a calm quiet activity might actually help him get back to sleep faster because it will engage his mind long enough to distract it from the fact that he should be sleeping.   With Alice, we have a snooze button set to 30 minutes.  She can push it and some lullabies will play for 30 minutes.  If she still isn't asleep when the music turns off again, she can read in bed for another 30 before trying for sleep again.  Of course you'll want to work out options that are best suited to your child and home.  If you don't have a self-reader, audio books might work (but if there is a sibling in the same bedroom, this could also pose a problem).  Whatever you choose, your child's options should be quiet and not bother others, be soothing and the kind that are likely to allow his brain to calm down and let him again too. 

Punishments and Consequences:

Punishing a child for not sleeping, is likely to leave him in a lose-lose situation where he is stressed out because he knows he is supposed to be sleeping but can't and is bored out of his mind because it is dark and he is supposed to be quiet but he is wide awake and can't do anything about it.  For this reason, punishing a kid because he or she can't sleep is counter-productive.  However, if a child is consistently waking up the whole household in the middle of the night, you do have a second problem to address beyond the one child's sleeping challenges.

In the case that you have a plan set up, your child knows and understands the plan (and was even a part in devising it) and your child is still waking every one else you may need to resort to consequences.  Perhaps he misses out on something cool to do some chores that other members of the house would normally do to allow his family members to "catch up on sleep" that has been missed because of his loudness.  Whatever you decide to do in this regard, I suggest making sure it is purely a consequence for having awaken every one else, and not for not sleeping.

Thursday, December 13, 2012

When They Hate to Leave School or Day Care

 As a teacher at a preschool, there were definitely times when the kids did not want to go home and reasoning with a two year old about the matter often doesn't seem to help much.  Although it should be great news that your kid doesn't want to go home (this is a result of the excellent care, fun staff and engaging environment your child has been exposed to after-all).  It can also be a bit distressing for the parent, and create a challenging situation if your child is melting down into tantrums or fits of sobs at pick-up time.

Whether to avoid the issue altogether, or to help remedy one that has arisen, I recommend you offer your young child a "routine" to give him a sense of control and time to transition in any situation where he or she is expected to leave one location and move on to another.  Repeatable routines allow kids to "wrap up" what they are doing both physically and mentally and help in switching contexts.

Specifically in relation to pick up time at preschool, you might try something along the lines of, "Hi (term of endearment and name) I'm here, you have about 10 minutes to get ready to go. Can you show me what you are playing?" Play with him for about five minutes and then say, "I'm going to talk to your teacher and gather your things. We have about five minutes until we leave." Talk to his teacher a little, gather his stuff . . . You get the idea. It's important to be consistent and accurate with the time estimates so that he can learn to transition.

It is important to give kids choices when you can.  However, I recommend against bargaining in regard to more time.  If you bargain now, you'll be bargaining every day and "Please, five more minutes" will become a common refrain heard even on days when you are in a huge hurry.  If you'd like to offer your child a choice about something, I recommend something more like, "would you like to show me what you were playing for five minutes or just play the way you were for five minutes?"

When you tell her it is time to go, you might try something like, "Would you like to hug (teachers name) or blow her a kiss today?"  and/or, "Would you like to put your lunch leftovers in your bag or would you rather I did it?"  In doing this you establish that it is time to go, but you are also giving her an opportunity to choose how she goes about leaving.

Try to keep leaving fun, most of the time you can simply engage your little one in conversation.  For example, you might ask what his favorite part of the day was.  However, every once in awhile (and especially if you've been having trouble at pick up time) make a game out of getting to the car.   How many giant steps does it take? How many baby steps?  Assuming you'll need to cross a parking lot, I don't suggest actually racing to the car, but if traffic and safety aren't a worry, why not race?  If it is fun, it will be more appealing to the little one. 

If you've been having a challenge at pick-up time and that is why you are reading this article, don't expect change overnight.  It will take a few pick-ups with a calm administration of the "routine" before your child starts to connect the dots.  If your child is simply refusing to leave, please do not use the "alright, off I go then" bluff.  If you are only bluffing and they call your bluff, you lose credibility which does not really help you in the end.  Simply and calmly, scoop up your child with an empathetic, "I know you were having fun and would really like to stay, but it is time to go home.  You will be back and play more again (Tomorrow, Next Monday. . . whatever is most appropriate here)."  Carry your child to the car in as calm a state as you can muster and don't say anything more until your child has calmed.

While you wait for that day to come you can "notice" how the behavior at pick up time effects his play time.  However it is important to "notice" this after the drama is over and not during the drama of a tantrum or fit of tears.  It is also important that the "noticing" not be casual but not be disciplinary either.  You might say, "Hey (term of endearment or name here),  I know you really like school and I've noticed you are having a hard time when it is time to leave.  Because I noticed that, I am trying to give you a five minute warning and let you play just a little bit after I get there.  Today, instead of hearing me tell you that you had five more minutes to play, your were fussing so loudly you used your five minutes up having a fit."   Or, you could try, "I really wished you had been willing to show me what you were playing. I had five minutes to play with you there and wanted to, what a bummer."

After using a routine and these methods for a little while, a good day will come.  The first time it does work, when you get to the car, notice that she went with you without a bunch of fussing and crying about it. "I notice leaving day care today seemed easier for everyone. What nice choices you made."

Along the way, remember, you are having this problem because you chose a wonderful day care or preschool and be reassured you are making the right decisions in your child's care. 

Saturday, December 8, 2012

Writing Tasks for ADHD: Part 5 - Putting Technology to Work

As has been outlined in the other four articles about writing tasks and the ADHD student, it is really difficult, if not impossible to get one's writing down perfectly the first, second or even third time.  As luck would have it, we live in an age when high accessibility to paper makes it less critical that a first draft be almost the last draft.  We also live in an age when computer technologies make it super easy to edit and even move huge chunks of writing around quickly and easily.  The first step to making writing easier for any one, but especially for our ADHD kids is to remove the pressure to make the writing perfect the first (or even second) time.  

Technology Helps:  Don't put it on plain old lined paper

Handwriting and spelling are particularly difficult and can really get in the way for many ADHD kids.  As soon as our kids are ready to learn touch typing, teach it to them!  Typing will allow a child to have a much better chance of keeping up with his or her thoughts and reduces the likelihood of drawing a really frustrating blank.

By recording ideas in an audio format, a child can then push pause as much as needed while listening and getting ideas down onto paper, or typed onto the screen.

Software such as Powerpoint actually generates an outline alongside the slide show being created.  Using tools like powerpoint to generate separate slides that can easily be arranged and rearranged can help children get their ideas in order and go back and double check for flow and clarity.  Mindmapping software helps kids with getting their thoughts organized and sorting out main ideas from supporting details.

When used correctly, word processing can help tremendously by aiding children in catching spelling and grammatical errors.  Similarly, there are now also programs available (like this one) called, "word predictor software" that actually predict the next word the child is likely to use when typing into the computer.  While this could produce distraction during some parts of the writing process, it can also be extremely helpful in aiding a child in choosing the best word and spelling while the child is drafting a written piece.  Using such a program can cut down on the amount of "revising" needed and build self confidence in the writer.  If a child pays attention to the spelling offered, over time they can also learn from the computer in regard to how to correctly spell certain words in the first place.

Software such as Powerpoint actually generates an outline alongside the slide show being created.  Using tools like powerpoint to generate separate slides that can easily be arranged and rearranged can help children get their ideas in order and go back and double check for flow and clarity.

Modern word processing software also allows children to cut and paste entire chunks of their writing in order to easily rearrange their work in the final editing stages.

There are also options for speech recognition software that allows a child that has particular difficulty with the motor skills involved in physically writing or typing his or her ideas to dictate their thoughts directly into the computer.  These programs require "training" which takes a lot of time and can be pretty pricey, but depending on the particular needs of your child, may be well worth the investment.

If you liked this article, you might also like;

The Writing Process 
Teaching Wiggle Worms
How to Make Your Own Fidgets
Writing Tasks for Your ADHD Student - Part 1: The Multitasking of Writing
Part 2: Chunking
Part 3: Idea Generation 
Part 4: Getting it all Organized
Part 5: Putting Technology to Work

Friday, December 7, 2012

Writing Tasks and ADHD: Part 4 - Getting it all Organized

Organization is something that is particularly difficult for kids and adults with ADHD.  Here is one alternative to the traditional outline for getting ideas organized in writing that I have found to work very well with ADHD students.  An outline is a wonderful tool for those students for whom it does work and I encourage you to introduce them to your kids, but if this tool doesn't work for them I also suggest offering up this tactic instead.

After kids have brainstormed their subtopics and supporting details to be used, they'll need to formulate full sentences for each idea.  I suggest these sentences get written on separate index cards - one sentence per card OR typed onto slides in a program similar to Powerpoint.  Again, one sentence per slide.

Here Alice is putting her Sentences in the Order she Thinks works best
The student will then sort the cards or slides into paragraphs with topic sentences and supporting details.  Once all is in order, the child should read through the writing he or she has created and add "linking statements" or sentences.   This is also a good time to combine sentences using conjunctions  to increase the fluidity of the writing.  During this process, a child can add another sentence card for a new idea he or she has had, remove cards that represent redundant ideas or rearrange a portion of cards because of a new thought on how best to arrange the statements of the work.

Finally, the child will then transfer their work into one piece.  He or she could hand-write the work or type it all into a word processor.  Of course a word processor allows for a similar type of cutting and pasting, but I have found that particularly with younger kids there is something to be said for the physicality of the separate cards and the action of actually manipulating separate cards.

This method does have the drawback that kids might spend far too much time arranging and rearranging their thoughts, but if you want to be realistic, that is true of the writing process anyway you go about completing the process.  The method does seem to help some kids avoid "Writer's Block" as for whatever reason it feels less overwhelming or just more fun to them. 

You might also be interested in:
The Writing Process 
Teaching Wiggle Worms
How to Make Your Own Fidgets
Writing Tasks for Your ADHD Student - Part 3: Idea Generation 
WTYADHDS - Part 5: Putting Technology to Work

Wednesday, December 5, 2012

Writing Tasks and ADHD: Part 3 - Idea Generation

Writing is a challenging task for anyone.  The mental multitasking required is surmountable for most of us, but if you have ADHD, and are new to writing  the task becomes an even more difficult proposition.  You can read more about Writing Tasks and the ADHD child in Parts One and Two of this series.

As I outline in The Four Components of a Good Writing Process, Idea Generation is the part of the process when a writer is considering ideas.  This is the brainstorming and sorting part of writing and, contrary to popular belief is actually required at the beginning of writing and sometimes at additional times throughout the process.  Sometimes a writer can just write and will have a flood of great ideas flow directly onto the page.  At other times, a more formal process to get ideas going can be required.

The Basics

Of course the usual "brainstorm a list and write it down" can work.  However, for kids new to writing  (or typing) the speed of their own writing can greatly hinder their ability to get ideas down fast enough to keep up.  There is nothing wrong with helping your child by playing scribe.  The point is that they successfully get the ideas out of their heads and recorded so they can be accessed again.

If your child is particularly visual and artistically inclined, encourage him or her to get the ideas down with quick sketches instead of words.  What is the harm?  The purpose of the exercise is to generate ideas right?  Why would we put limits on how those ideas get generated if those limits just get in the way of getting the ideas out and recorded?

Some kids really like to use Concept Maps, once introduced.  These are a way of connecting the flow of ideas without limiting that flow (again, other than by speed - if they  are young and new to writing, you may need to act as scribe).   The mix of the visual aspect with the text can often be helpful in encouraging further brainstorming and can often be revisited and illicit even more ideas at the second or third viewing.  Here is an example my daughter did (with me as scribe) for her "Holiday Essay."

Free Writing means the child is supposed to keep their fingers (on a keyboard) or pencil moving for a certain amount of time.  During this time, the child writes whatever comes into his or head - even if it is "I don't know what to write" multiple times, the pencil keeps moving.  After a little while, some ideas should start to come out. 

Technological Help

If your child is an accomplished typist, using a keyboard to brainstorm can be a great help as it does usually speed things up and makes sure the ideas are still legible later.  I highly recommend typing for the ADHD kid starting at around 3rd grade or so.  Typing properly is likely to create a situation where the child uses better posture and although there are people out there that believe touch typing does not speed things up, it is pretty well established it is still the best, fastest, and safest way to type on a qwerty board currently.  The reason for the lower age limit, is that I have found with Alice (and in looking into typing options more deeply) typing before their fingers are really long enough is only helpful to a point and then it becomes frustrating for them.  Reaching certain keys "correctly" is impossible before they reach a certain finger length. 
Have your student record their brainstorm as a video or audio recording and then listen to it later - pausing as needed to get the ideas he or she wants to keep into text.  You can use this same idea to do a "free speak" instead of a freewrite.  The physical act of writing usually produces more ideas, but if handwriting is still new a "free speak" can work better than sitting and staring at a page that is supposed to get filled.

Use this link to find some concept mapping software if your child likes this idea and is computer savvy (I do not guarantee the downloads - please review and look at reviews first - this is an outside link out of my control).

There are programs available now that allow your child to dictate write into a word processor and the word processor will translate the child's speech into type.  The one I am familiar with is Dragon Speak, though it wouldn't surprise me if there are more options available now.  These programs can be pricey and will require time for "training" the computer, but if you child is having a significant struggle with both handwriting and typing the time and money might be well worth the investment over the period your child is in school.  

Creative Writing Idea Generation

For ideas for creative writing practice things like Story Cubes, or Character and Verb Cards and a word jar can be a fun and helpful way to get a story started.

Galumphing is one of my favorite devices.  This example is really best for the kid that loves to tell stories once they are given a place to start.   In galumphing, the writer picks any random small object from their immediate environment and writes a story about that item.  The idea is to make the story bigger and bigger - something like the butterfly effect.  You never know what can come from one tiny pebble for example.   Have your child spin in place (eyes closed) a few times and then start a story based on the first thing he or she sees upon stopping and opening his or her eyes.

If the assignment at hand is simply that the child writes a creative fiction, kids can also use some of their own favorite stories as a model for their own tale with some tweaks.  Give a fairy tale some  totally different characters or write from the perspective of the villain for a "fractured fairytale."  They can also use the idea of a "tall tale" or "myth" to get going.  Read a story from Paul Bunyon and Babe the Blue Ox or the Myths and Legends of the Ancients and then have your child pick something about the world he or she would like to "explain" in a similar way. 

Tuesday, December 4, 2012

Writing tasks for ADHD - Part 1: The Multi-tasking of Writing

Those of you that have followed this site at all, will know I had a lot of trouble with motivating Alice to write a year or so ago.  Despite my experience with ADHD kids, I did not see the writing challenges at the time as anything more than difficulty with the physical task of writing and Alice's dislike for it.  Especially when her confidence in forming the letters themselves improved, and her attitude improved with it, I figured my thoughts confirmed.  Turns out, there is more to it than that with her because here we are again.

Writing requires significant multi-tasking because the brain has to consider the physical motions of the action of writing (or typing), the grammar and structure of what is being written, the phonetic  symbolic structure, metaphoric symbols (when used) as well as mechanics including spelling, proper capitalization and punctuation and that is just to write a sentence!  I was able to help her move past her reluctance to write sentences when she felt she had a a better handle on the physical aspect of writing/typing, and when I told her to worry less - for now - about correct spelling.

Now, Alice is learning about "main ideas" or "topic sentences" and the structure of writing a paragraph.  This adds a whole 'nother layer of complexity.  There is the physical structure of the paragraph - spacing between letters, sentences, lines and leaving room for margins.  There is the structure of how the different sentences are supposed to relate to one-another and the need to give statements a logical order or organization.   Add to that the complexities outlined in the above paragraph about sentences and you've handed over a pretty daunting task for any beginner.  Try writing a proper paragraph in a language you don't already know well and then tell me it isn't difficult.

Alice, seems to have a rush of ideas she can easily verbalize, but then when it comes to putting them all on paper she just can't keep up with herself.  This is a common problem for nearly All beginning writers.  Even in adults, this kind of multi-tasking can be difficult for anyone, but it becomes especially difficult for kids with ADHD.  For more information about writing tasks and the additional challenges faced in completing those tasks by ADHD kids, click this link.  Alice has not actually been diagnosed with ADD or ADHD, but I thought I'd start to try some of the writing techniques I used to use with ADHD students, and see if they helped her out too.  As a result, I thought I'd write a series of articles about techniques for teaching writing to kids with ADHD for those of you out there struggling to help your child with writing homework, or to teach your child writing skills in the home setting.

For Ideas and Solutions
I imagine if you are reading this, you are someone, or know someone that is struggling with writing or ADHD and writing and wanted to find information about how to help that someone.    Read on for those solutions:

For part 2, Chunking, click here.
For part 3, Idea Generation, click here.
For part 4, Getting it all organized, click here.
For part 5, Putting Technology to work, click here.
For part 6, Editing Tricks and Revision, click here.

The Four Components of a Good Writing Process as it offers up a nice context for this series by addressing the need for a new way to consider the writing process and what that new way of thinking might look like.

You might also like, Teaching Wiggle Worms and Assessing Wiggle Worms


Bookshelf Markers for Organization

We actually use bookshelf markers!  I know it is a little anal, but it sure does help us keep track of all our books and where they belong.
To make these, I obtained a bunch of paint stir sticks.  Each member of the family got a color and I painted the sticks and then used Permanent marker to create my stick figures representing each of us.  Each family member got two markers.  Plus, we made a few more for "school books" since we homeschool. 

The idea is that one marker goes in the book shelf when a book is removed to save the place where that book belongs.  If an individual in the family doesn't have a free marker, that means there is a book laying around the house that needs picking up in order for another book to be removed from the shelf.

You could decorate the stir sticks anyway you pleased (as you can see from mine, no artistic ability is truly required).  Hope you find this idea useful.

The Four Components of a Good Writing Process

For those of you that really like the standard "writing process," I'm really sorry to break it to you, but the idea that there is one "writing process." is a stretch at best.  The idea that kids need to learn that one specific process and it will work for every kid and every writing assignment is a hoax.  Ask professional writers and they will each have a process.  Many of these processes will have overlapping characteristics, but no two authors will have a system exactly like the next - even if you compare two authors of about the same age, writing in the same genre, whose work is of about the same quality.

The Writing Process as it is Taught in Many Schools:

While there are many variations on this, some with one or two more steps or one or two fewer, or even some that put Proofing after revising, this is the general idea of how writing is taught in schools as one specific "process."
  1. Pre-writing is a process that includes brainstorming, choosing the audience and organizing one's thoughts and ideas.  This is the step that includes brainstorming and writing outlines and/or flow charts.
  2. Drafting is the part of the process where those organized ideas get turned into fairly coherent and complete sentences, paragraphs and papers or stories.
  3. Proof-reading is when children or other authors are asked to check for "correctness."  This is when a focus on spelling, punctuation and other grammar and mechanics issues can be addressed.
  4. Revising is the fourth step. This is the part where whole sentences or sections may be re-written to clarify an idea or create better "flow."
  5. The final step might be labeled "publish" or "share" or "turn-in" for many kids.  This is when the piece is totally finished and shared with others and then the process is considered to be finished.
The Problem with This Model:

I'm not saying teaching kids "the writing process" is a waste of time and shouldn't be done.  What I am saying is that forcing kids to all fit with the same process is bound to "leave some children behind" rather than "leave no child behind."  The writing process is meant to help in the generation and organization of one's thoughts in order to get them written down in a way that will make sense to others.  This is a good thing, but "the process" taught (whichever version is chosen) doesn't work for everybody.  Instead, I suggest teaching there are parts of the process writing can be broken down into.  Which order the steps are done in and exactly how - is dependent upon the peculiarities of the person actually doing the writing.  Accept that, teach that, and we will be much further down the road to encouraging more kids to use their writing skills the best way they can to still achieve a functional or even outstanding level in their writing quality. 

I remember being given outlines to write in fifth or sixth grade where I was supposed to outline what I wanted to say before I wrote it as part of "pre-writing".  This is one valid way to go about the process of writing, except it was a lot easier for me to free write, get my ideas out and then go back and edit for clarity and meaning.  I would move things around, rearrange paragraphs and sentences within them and then turn in an essay that received an A.  The problem was, I was supposed to turn in an outline in-between that was difficult for me to write.  My teacher wanted to help all of us be organized about our "writing process" and that was fine and good, but her version of the process didn't work for me.  It locked up my creativity and made me feel frozen when it was time to sit down and actually write the paper.  Having to follow my own outline, prevented me from being able to think of good sentences.  My ideas wouldn't flow anymore and I'd get "writer's block."  I adjusted by writing out my essays the night before the outline was due (meaning I had to get the assignment finished sometimes a week ahead of schedule) and then worked backwards to create the outline from my essay.  No one - not even my parents knew this.  I knew I wasn't doing things in the prescribed order, but I was getting the assignments done and I was still pleasing the teacher. 

What a waste of time right?  I lost sleep over it, trying to get it all done in one night like that and my parents probably thought it was a result of me having procrastinated, but since I was a generally good student they were present and supportive but left me to my own devices when it came to school work unless I asked for help.  I didn't think I needed any help - I was doing what was asked of me - sort of.  If my teachers and parents had realized what was going on, perhaps they would have been flexible and let me out of writing the outline understanding that I still managed to turn in organized work, perhaps not.  Perhaps, I would have been taught I was a bad writer because I couldn't form an outline and I wouldn't be writing this article today.  Most likely, the result would have been something in the middle - who really knows?  What I do know is a lot of kids don't use outlines and are never taught useful alternatives that are out there today. 

The Writing Process as Component Parts

I propose that teaching kids there are many ways to construct a "writing process" but all writing processes include the following four elements would be a more flexible way to teach the components of writing to kids. 

You can still offer up for the kids assignments related to each component, but honor the idea that every some children might need more proofing/revising cycles with each cycle more focused on one rule they check for, while others might be able to be more thorough and take longer for each of fewer cycles.  It also honors the kid that might want to do some of his or her organizing of ideas after the first attempt at drafting instead of insisting organization must always happen first.
  • Idea Generation - This clearly needs to happen at the beginning of the writing process, but isn't limited only to the beginning.  Sometimes, as writing is taking place new ideas are also generated.  During revisions new ideas are often needed in order to do the revising successfully.
  • Drafting and Revising - This is the creation part of the writing process.  In drafting a writer is getting the ideas into a format others can access, but this can also happen in a number of different ways.  Perhaps a very visual "writer" will get his or her ideas down in pictures first, edit for plot points, order, length and suspense, even themes and character development and then come back and actually start writing.  In revising, an author might be re-working a portion of a piece of writing to work out a kink that was found in proofing or editing.
  • Proofing, and Editing  - This process happens almost continuously throughout the writing process and alternate with revising numerous times.  Proofing and editing both have to do with checking that the writing already completed will make sense to the intended audience.  The writer/proofer must consider order, organization, transitions, grammar, mechanics, flow, clarity, spelling, symbolism, redundancy etc.  Problems found in the writing are sometimes easy to fix with a quick Edit, and sometimes require revision.  In the case where revision is needed, more idea generation might also be needed similtaneously, new writing and further editing and proofing of that new writing will be needed.
  • Publishing or Sharing  - Clearly, this is the last part of the process.  However, sometimes even as an adult I might share or "publish" something and then get feedback in the sharing that inspires me to go back and complete another proofing, editing and revision cycle (or two).  Even new editions of books are sometimes revised slightly between edition releases to update out-of-date information or simply make subtle grammatical changes or fixes.
There is absolutely nothing wrong with teaching kids these components and showing them a "typical" way someone might move through them, I'd just argue we need to be flexible in how that movement happens.  Why are kids taught that organization of ideas happens before drafting?  Why are they taught there is one way to write?  This simply is not the case.  We need to stress that published authors usually do multiple revision cycles mixed in with multiple periods of Idea Generation and Writing.  No one is perfect, by suggesting to kids the writing process is as linear as is often taught, we are basically setting them up to fail in writing - including those kids that are particularly talented thinkers but not especially gifted at getting their thoughts onto paper the first time.

Writing Tasks for your ADHD Student: Part 1 - Chunking

Writing Tasks for Your ADHD student - Part 2: "Chunking"

This article is part two of a series of articles about writing skills for the ADHD student (although many struggling student writers may find these skills and ideas helpful too.  To read part one, click here,  it is all about the many mental tasks involved in writing and how writing requires multi-tasking.

Chunk the Work
Plan ahead and avoid procrastination at all costs.

"Chunk" assignments so that each step in the writing process gets a night of work (or its own designated and special time).  If your child is at school, ask for the teacher's help with this.  If the time between the giving of the assignment and the deadline are too close together to allow for this kind of chunking, ask the teacher if assignments can be given earlier so you can break the assignment down into smaller pieces for your child.

Use a calendar or planner to specify which nights are for each step in the process and treat the assignment as though it is a bunch of smaller assignments with lots of deadlines instead of one big assignment with one looming deadline.  This is less overwhelming and avoids leaving the child feeling overwhelmed to the point of "writer's block."  It also prevents stressed out, late nights with all kinds of fighting and unpleasant and unhealthy interaction between you and your child in trying to get it done.

Teach your child how to "chunk" as they grow so that they can eventually go through this process on their own.  Contrary to popular belief ADHD does not suddenly go away for most, some time during adolescence or the teen years.  They will need these skills to function in their later years.  Besides, these same skills are the skills that help any driven person gain and maintain success any way.

To chunk work, you'll want to break down any assignment into its component parts.  Even for a second grade student, breaking down the steps in creating a one paragraph essay can make a huge difference in leaving them feeling capable and confident to tackle the job at hand.   For an intermediate paragraph writer, one night can be for research and the next night for writing.

To make things even more simple for the true beginner, break down the steps in writing a paragraph essay.  This is an example of one genre of writing and one way to think about breaking it down - there are other ways to think this through, let your child work with you to find the style that fits best for him or her and the assignment at hand.
  1. Brainstorm possible "topic sentence" ideas
  2. The next step is to determine which topic sentence sounds the most interesting and "doable" for the child or to determine the topic sentence.  
  3. Then the child writer will need to brainstorm his or her list of supporting fact ideas to go with the topic sentence.  
  4. The brainstormed list will need to be pared down to the ideas that best support the topic statement.
  5. Each supporting fact or idea will need to be turned into a complete sentence.
  6. The order of the supporting sentences will need to be determined.
  7. For older writers, transition statements, and the combining of some sentences to increase flow for the reader will need to be added.  Additional clarifications and edits can be made here.
  8. Editing for flow, mechanics, structure and grammar can happen.

As the child grows, so will his or her assignments, but so to with the child's ability to handle the task of writing.  Once writing a paragraph is a standard ability, the requirements and expectations will grow to writing one page essays (with an introduction and closing) and then multiple page essays with a thesis and conclusion.  The same steps listed above can be tweaked a bit to apply to the over-all written assignmentAt these stages chunks can be more sizable, but the habit of chunking will still be useful and applicable - I would argue, more useful and even more applicable with the larger complexity.

You might also be interested in:
The Writing Process 
Teaching Wiggle Worms

How to Make Your Own Fidgets
Writing Tasks for Your ADHD Student - Part 3: Idea Generation 
WTYADHDS - Part 4: Getting it all Organized
WTYADHDS - Part 5: Putting Technology to Work

Sunday, November 25, 2012

The Legends of Arthur and His Knights

One of the Books On Alice's Reading List for Second Grade was The Story of King Arthur and His Knights, a retelling of the Howard Pyle version of the tale and adapted by Tania Zamorsky.  There are actually many versions of this tale -even written in easier-to-read formats.  We also read, Arthur of Albion by John Matthews and Pavel Tatarnikov (this one was beautifully illustrated) and Knights of the Round Table by Gwen Gross.  Some of the tales are also told independently such as, "The Kitchen Knight - A Story of King Arthur" by Margaret Hodges and retold by Trina Shart or Young Guinevere by Robert San Souci.  If you'd like a digital take on Arthur, you might try this link when you are done, please let me know what you thought of it by adding a comment.

Before reading the Legends of King Arthur and his knights, you may want to cover a little information about Medieval Knights so your student(s) will have a firm grasp on related vocabulary and concepts regarding the chivalric code.  Knights will offer you the vocabulary (in italics) and links and resources you may desire to do just that.

At some point during a unit where you read about the legendary King Arthur, you'll probably want to discuss the differences and similarities between legend and myth.  To do so, the article, "Fiction or Biography? Legends of King Arthur" will provide helpful historical resources.

I believe it is great fun to have kids read a few legends and a few Tall Tales and compare.  Then, have kids turn their own life story into "Legend,"  OR if father's day is nearing, dedicate the story to Dad by turning him into a Legend for a fabulously fun Father's Day Gift.  Alice was still a bit to new to writing to get much out of her at the time of writing this article, but I will try again.

For us, most of the objectives while reading the stories were to learn more about characteristics of the characters within a story but the tales can be used to discuss plot, setting and themes as well.

Some generic questions to ask after you have read about King Arthur and his Knights that should work with any version you might choose to use.

  1. Name an important characteristic of Arthur.  Then list three things he did or said that demonstrate this quality.
  2. Which knight was your favorite?  Why?
  3. Which legend of the Knights was your favorite tale?  Why?
  4. Why is it important that Arthur's Table was round?
  5. Describe a lesson Arthur learned and how he learned it.
  6. Who was Merlin and what was his role in Arthur's Life?
  7. Name one Antagonist and describe at least one problem he/she caused for Arthur and how Arthur solved the problem.
  8. Name at least one of the Women in the life of Arthur and his Knights.  Describe her story.
  9. What rules were included in the code of chivalry the Knights of the Round Table followed.  Why were these rules important.
  10. Why do you think tales about Arthur and his Knights have been told for so many years?  Why do we still enjoy them?

Teen and Pre-teen:

After Reading some of the Tales with your preteen/teenager, you might want to checkout a book from this booklist to read.  Ask your child to defend how the book is an Arthurian Legend.  What similarities does the book have to the legends you read together?  What is the message of the newer book?  Does the newer story have any similar themes? characters? setting? plot? How does the book your child read differ? Which version does your child like better and why?  Just for fun, you might view some episodes of Merlin from the BBC.  I have not seen, "King Arthur" with Clive Owen, but it might be of interest as well.  I know Merlin is available on Netflix streaming.  No, Merlin does not follow the original legends even closely, but that is part of the fun and of course you can discuss comparisons as part of the experience.

Primary or Elementary:

For a full guide regarding King Arthur, the associated history and completing a unit regarding King Arthur and his knights, you will find this article quite useful.  This website has further links and information to use with your primary student while this website sums up the tales that are most popularly told about King Arthur (also at a primary level).  After we were done with all the reading, we also watched Disney's Sword in the Stone just for fun.  "The Sword in the Stone" is available through Netflix and, true to Disney fashion, tells the tales in an entirely different way to the legends.  It simply creates a great opportunity to ask your child to make comparisons.  Create a chart with two columns one titled "the same" and the other "different" or use a Venn Diagram with your little one.

More To Read:

If your late elementary/middle school child LOVES reading and wants to read more.  Try the series, "The Dark is Rising" by Susan Cooper.  It has a Lexile score of around 830 (depending on the specific book) and is for readers generally between fifth and ninth grade.  You might also try books from the list linked here and here for your even slightly older kids.

Something To Watch:

Sir Gawain and the Green Knight - BBC Documentary retelling interspersed with explanation and wonderful complimentary visuals.  The film shows Simon Armitage as he journeys in the footsteps of Gawain and considers Gawain as a possible man and how it must have been for Gawain as well as the literary merits of original poem.  The video is probably well suited to teens, but is not likely to engage the interests of younger kids.  Preview the video to determine if you think it a good experience for your child and his/her particular interests and appropriateness of subject matter.

Friday, November 23, 2012

Dealing with Perfectionism

What is wrong with striving for perfection? You might ask.  Well, it can also be crippling to anyone that is so worried about attaining perfection they won't even try something in the first place.  It can also truly slow down artistic processes to degree that means virtually nothing is happening AND for kids who are learning, striving for perfection can bring the learning process to a halt.  I spent three years teaching kids that carry a "gifted" label and a label attached to a variety of learning disorders. Almost every one of them struggled with perfectionistic tendencies that became disabling at times - it is an innate tendency in some kids.

It is especially a very common problem among gifted children.  There are a few things parents can do that can worsen the tendency when it already exists, create a tendency toward perfectionism where one did not exist before, or conversely, help their kids try, and succeed or fail with grace.

If you have a child that is overly focused on perfection or doesn't like to try things for fear of failure, here are a number of things you can try that might help to at least mitigate the problem if not do away with it entirely.

Create an Environment Focused on Effort:

Make sure that you are focused on his or her efforts and "journey" as opposed to accomplishments. The most obvious way to do this is first to ask the question, "did you do your best?" If she wins and/or has a great success at something, ask, "did you do your best?" If she can honestly say she did, celebrate with her. If she says no, say, "why not?" Do the same if she fails at something. "Did you do your best?" "Yes" - well, lets have your favorite pizza for dinner then."

Other, less obvious ways to create an effort - focused environment, include:

Minimize Praise and Critique:

Instead of praising your child for accomplishments, ask about his or her feelings in regard to that accomplishment, "what do you think about your soccer team's win today?" Likewise, if your child has had a failure, "What do you think about what happened today?" If the answer is, "I did my best, but I don't know what happened" you are receiving an invitation to offer constructive feedback. If your child feels he or she already knows what went wrong, let him or her make the appropriate adjustments - or at least lead the conversation.

Instead of praising or critiquing your child for something done, simply notice it non-evaluatively, "I noticed you controlled the ball five times today during the game."  If he feels that was an accomplishment, he'll feel good about your statement. On the other hand, if he feels he could have done better, he might say, "yeah I know, I held back." Now you know how your child feels about it and you can respond accordingly.

As an example, at Alice's first TKD tournament, she wound up having to spar against a beloved friend.  She still dominated the field but did tell me she hadn't kicked as hard as she can when I asked, "did you do your best."  The kids wear lots of padding and the way points are scored is by kicking hard enough there is a resulting sound that the judges hear.  She may not have won anyway, and it was a good match but she didn't do her best.  At the same time, her reason for not kicking hard was a good one, "I didn't want to hurt my friend."  She and I were able to talk about how the padding protects everyone and of being competitors on the mat and friends off the mat. 

Praise and Punish only Effort and even use that sparingly

When critique is required, try to offer her the chance to come up with the alternative action or attitude that will be more productive.   You can also often put it on yourself or as a standard in society instead of as if it is a problem with her.  State what the problem is, "It really bothers me when the house is a mess." or "people don't generally like to be laughed at like that."  Follow that with what you need your child to do starting with "I," "Therefore, I need you to keep the house a little cleaner."  or with the society "Friends and other people are more likely to appreciate it you offer help when they slip and fall."  Then, invite her to be part of the solution, "How can we work on helping you remember to keep the house clean together?" or "What can we do to help you feel less inclined to laugh when some one else slips and falls?"

Make Sure She Has Examples of Success After Failure

Include Stories from Fiction and From History

"Meet the Robinson's" and its message of "Keep Moving Forward" is a great one. We also refer to the "Up From the Ashes" song and scene from "Chitty Chitty Bang Bang" at our house.  Both movies show an inventor failing AND succeeding.  How many times did Babe Ruth strike out versus his Home Runs? Apparently Einstein was horrid in elementary school.   Thomas Edison tried TONS of other options before coming up with just the right filament for the light bulb, or what about Alexander Flemming and his chance discovery of Penicillium?  Michael Jordon once said,

"I've missed more than 9000 shots in my career. I've lost almost 300 games. 26 times, I've been trusted to take the game winning shot and missed. I've failed over and over and over again in my life. And that is why I succeed." 

Share things like this with your perfectionistic child often.

Include Examples from Your Own Life

Share your most embarrassing moments with your kids - couched with something good that came out of it - a lesson learned, a friend made . . .  Do the same with all the failures you've had and can share in this same kind of light.

Include Examples from your Child's Own Life:

Your child didn't always know how to use the potty, couldn't always dress him/herself or button buttons etc.   Practice had to happen first.  Even if you have to dig deep, make sure your child knows he or she has been through this before.  Every child will have something you can point to that needed practice for attainment.  The skill of tying shoes, playing an instrument, dribbling a basket ball. . .

Offer Chances to Fail in Private

Give challenges at home you know your child can handle, but your child isn't totally sure about.  For example, you might offer a book your child will think is a little too tough and say, "but I really think you'll like this story. What if we read it together? You read it to me and if you get stuck you can ask for my help." (I did this with my own daughter to get her to try reading chapter books - now it is hard to find good books, at the right level, in her areas of interest fast enough!)  Then, if something IS a challenge just be supportive through it.  At the end ask, "Did you do your best? and How did that feel?"

When Failures Occur, Treat them as A Learning Opportunity

Seriously, when your child fails at something - celebrate it! "Woo-hoo, a chance to learn something - okay what is it, what did you learn, or what did we learn from this one?" Don't be so over-the top that it feels cheesy or you will look like you are being patronizing, but genuinely empathize with the disappointment, embarrassment, whatever and then say, "But you know, the good news is, I BET there is something to be learned here - that's the way the greatest scientists see it anyway."

Teach and Model Positive Self Talk
Let your kids see you make mistakes and respond to them the way you wish they would respond to theirs: "Oh my gosh! What a mistake I made! Ah well, everyone does. I'm going to just keep moving forward" or, "I won't let it get me down" or, "Good thing I know mistakes are often a learning opportunity. what can I learn from this?"

Let your kids see you try something new and fail: "Oh, singing is So hard - my voice cracked all through my half hour lesson today. Ah well, I know if I keep practicing, I'll get it."

It will take time, but, overtime, these techniques along with just quality attention and time together will make a difference for your perfectionist kid.  He or she may still struggle with perfectionism, but it is a lot less likely to cripple him or her into doing nothing because of the fear of not doing it perfectly.

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Designing Your Own Gingerbread House

Our Treehouse
One favorite classic holiday activity many people enjoy is making gingerbread houses for the holiday.  Of course corporations have taken full advantage and you can now go buy baking molds, specialized cookie cutters and even pre-made, pre-baked kits that make it easy to slap a house together.  However, it is less expensive, requires more planning and creativity of your kids, and offers up measurement and other math skills practice opportunities when you plan and make your own.  Besides, designing your own can be really fun AND results in a unique house each year.  

We went with the Log Cabin style when Alice was three (shown below).  The advantage of using the log cabin style is that the sides of the house are stacked and built up a bit like Lincoln logs which makes things a lot easier for little hands.

When you make your own, you can create a log cabin, a western desert style house, something inspired by a favorite story, a famous landmark, or you can keep it traditional and go with either a Victorian or fairytale style house.

Here is how to make the "log cabin" style house: 

You'll want a large-ish square or rectangle for the roof.  Ours was about 5 x 7 inches or so.  Two right triangles of matching dimensions whose hypotenuse matches the "end" dimensions of your roof.     You'll also need to make the "logs."  Really these are just rectangles of gingerbread of different, but related sizes, and a  quantity of small squares.  

For the logs I recommend some of the logs match the dimensions of your roof in length.  If your roof is a rectangle, this will mean making logs to match BOTH the length and width of your roof.  You will also want logs that are about half the length of the longest logs, and logs about two thirds the length of the longest logs to allow for the creation of openings for windows and a doorway.   

You can plan it all out so you know how many of each you will need, but if you are doing this activity with your kids, some of them will break, some will get eaten and inevitably you will find you didn't have the right number anyway.  I suggest you just make lots of each size and let your kids "play" with the cookie sticks as though they are Lincoln Logs.  They'll enjoy eating the extras and the whole adventure will be a lot more fun for everybody.  

If you add one more piece that can act as the doorway by resting against the house where the "door" is, you can have a closed door as well, though this is certainly not necessary.  Decorate as you wish.  (This year, I'm hoping to incorporate left-over Halloween Candy that is still sitting around).

Gingerbread and Frosting Recipe and instructions

To Design almost any other Style of House:

This is by far the hardest way to make your house.  I highly recommend that you START SIMPLE!!!  You will need to sketch out how your house will look from all sides.  By doing this first, you can have a visual of the shapes that make up your house.  How many triangles will you need and what are their relative sizes?  

Then you'll need to test your design using cardboard.  In this way you can shave down edges, make appropriate measurements, make sure everything fits AND test out the general physics of your design.  This is the engineering stage.  Plan some time for it.  Construct your house so it can be deconstructed because you'll need the cardboard as patterns for sizing our your cookie pieces.  Later, you can reconstruct the cardboard house and "Cheat" by having the cardboard inside to help the structure hold strong as well - but don't tell any one I suggested that!
At left, you can see our very first ever, self designed GB house.  As you can see it is made up of VERY SIMPLE shapes.  Because we were entering it in a contest, we couldn't use the cardboard underneath so you can see right inside as well.   Pueblo style houses, four sided "box houses" like often come in basic kits, and simple A frames are all great "starter houses."

Once you have the cardboard version of your house constructed, mark the pieces to remind you which piece will be adjacent to which other pieces.  For example mark an A on the left side of the front wall and a B on the right.  On the adjoining wall, mark a B next to the B on the front piece and a C on the side opposite the B.  Continue in this way until all your pieces are marked.  You'll want to deconstruct your cardboard house so you can use the pieces as a patterns for your dough.  You'll also want to keep track of the dough pieces by placing foil markers under them with the same writing.  "Front," "Roof," etc. seem like they would be sufficient, but even a square won't always work when turned a different direction later unless you are incredibly precise while resizing the cookies immediately after taking them out of the oven.  You'll need to place the cardboard on the dough and trace around the edges of it cutting with a knife.  Sometimes the dough reshapes a little when you lift it onto the cookie sheet.  So I recommend a GIGANTIC spatula if you can find one for this purpose. 

Make Cardboard Forms First
Bake the dough at 350 degrees F for about 8-10 minutes.  When the dough comes out of the oven, you'll need to re-cut it using the cardboard pieces again before it cools enough to become hard.  However, if you move the dough too soon, it can also crack.  Wait about 2-3 minutes before moving the dough to the counter and resizing the dough.  That gigantic spatula will come in handy again here.  resizing and cutting the dough is a delicate procedure and requires caution. 

To resize your cookies, simply place your cardboard pieces on their matching cookies.  For any spots where the cookie has swollen, make appropriate adjustments with your knife.   You do have some time before the dough hardens to the point where this is likely to cause cracking, but not a LOT of time, so work efficiently.   If the dough does harden, you can score it on both sides where cuts are needed first.  Score many times and then treat it as though it is tile, but this increases the likelihood you will be re-baking your walls.

After allowing the cookies time to cool and harden you can use the recipe given on my other article about Gingerbread houses to glue the whole thing together.  As mentioned before, I suggest using your cardboard "test structure" under your cookie structure to help hold everything together unless you will be entering a contest with some rule against such a choice. 

Finish by decorating as desired!

Gingerbread Houses - A Recipe that Really Sticks

Of course making a gingerbread house is a great, classic holiday activity and these days you can purchase pre-made kits.  You can also get reusable molds and cutters (there is a link to one below).  Of course, doing it the old fashioned way and designing your own is still a super fun possibility.  Anyway you bake it, here is a recipe that works really well.

Little House in the Big Woods Inspired Alice for THIS creation
1 cup butter (room temp)
1 c sugar
1 c molasses
1 egg
1 tbs vinegar
1 1/2 c sifted flour
1 tbs baking soda
1 tsp ginger
1 tsp cinnamon
1/4 tsp salt

Place butter in a bowl and cut in sugar until it is a mixture of pea - sized balls or smaller.
boil molasses and pour into butter and sugar mix. Add vinegar and blend.  Cool.

Add egg and blend.

In a separate bowl sift all the remaining dry ingredients together.  Then add butter and sugar mixture.  Refrigerate overnight.

Roll out and bake at 350 degrees for 8 - 10 minutes

3 tbsp Meringue Powder
1 lb powdered sugar
1/2 cup warm water
1/2 tsp cream of tartar

Mix ingredients together at high speed and use immediately (will harden into a glue-like substance quickly.  Add a few drops of warm water as needed to soften if it gets too hard too quickly).