Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Kids and Toys: Avoiding the plastic crap trap.

I am against plastic toys. Not for any sound, research-based reason, but because I just don't want a huge pile of that stuff hanging around the house.

So, I aim to stick to a few basic types of toys, which are those that cover all the basics. And, really, kids are resourcesful and inventive all on their own. They will make toys out of anything. One could argue that those cheap, ubiquitous plastic toys actually stunt kids' creativity.

But, there are a few toys that don't. Blocks are one. I finally finished the fabric blocks I set out to make. There are 9, one for each letter of Baby Field Notes' name. Each side has something different on it. On the reverse side of her name letters are numbers, and on a facing side are the numbers 1-9 in arabic. Because the numeral symbols we use are derived from arabic, there are a lot of similarities in the two sets of numbers. The white sided block, right underneath the division symbol in the photo here, is a 3, for example. In addition to some letters for her to spell out the two newfs' names, I threw in some mathematical symbols. Those sides she can have fun with later. I loved math as a kid and I won't be surprised if she does too.

As far as other toys for her to play with, we have been pretty spare. Better to not start that bad habit in the first place. I do not want to get in the habit of accumulating a bunch of plastic toys that only do one or two things and that quickly lose appeal.

So, I am trying to keep toy purchases and planned ones to a minimum of what is really essential in my opinion. Stuffed animals are essential, I think. They serve the same purpose as dolls as far as make-believe goes. They will also be a stepping stone to an interest in biology and the natural world, just like going on nature walks and playing in the garden will. She'll have her giant collection of felt food too — another one that is wonderful for play because she can pretend to not only serve meals and shop for them, she can pretend to operate a restaurant and farmer's market stand too, if she wants to. I am sure her stuffed animals and I will have to sit through more than one 'tea party' where sushi is served.

Every child needs to have a truck or two — the kind you use in a sand box or out at the beach or in the dirt and mud in the backyard. We've already got a dump truck. I get a kick out of the fact that it is in use as a handy place for us to keep a stash of diapers. More fun than leaving them in a box in the closet!

Other than trucks to play with in the dirt and sand, she'll need puzzles and blocks. Both are essential in my opinion. We've already got a few puzzles. I plan on getting her a really nice set of wood blocks to build towers and bridges and whatvever else she puts her mind to, if no one else does, but I have a feeling between her grandparents, aunts and uncles and great-grandparents, I probably won't need to buy her a thing! When she's older, we'll do the Legos. Mr. Field Notes still has the Legos he played with as a kid! Tangrams are awesome puzzles as well. They are excellent for practicing spatial skills and are fun for kids and adults alike... which is why we already have a set.

I really cannot think of other toys that kids really need. Paper, crayons, balls? That's more basic stuff we already have. Mr. Field Notes and I are really just big kids, so we've already got just about every basic type of toy I can think of. The only thing we really need from toy land for the next several years are wood blocks! Ha! I make it sound like we can get away with not buying toys for the next 4 years.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Check out all the monkeys! .... And a word on BPA and behavior

Just about every day I check the snow monkey web cam at the Jigokudani Monkey Park in Japan. I've been doing it since we came back from Japan nearly a year ago. I've enjoyed seeing the changing of seasons and the comings and goings of tourists. This snapshot is remarkable for the numbers of monkeys hanging out at the hotsprings and the complete absence of tourists. The day we visited there were easily five times as many tourists as monkeys. I had a good time but it would have been way more awesome to have them all to ourselves!

The Arashiyama monkey park right outside Kyoto is far more accesible than Jigokudani and even though a similar number of tourists frequent it, the place is bigger and everyone is able to spread out more. People are also allowed to feed the monkeys at Arashiyama from inside a cage (the people are in the cage) which makes for a fun experience — at least it was for me. I had a blat hand feeding itsy bitsy pieces of apple to the babies and also observing a bit of a sense of entitlement on the part of older monkeys who displayed a considerable amount of disdain for such stingy handouts. If I offered a piece of apple that wasn't large enough, one monkey slapped it away, more than once (so I knew it wasn't an accident). He or she readily accepted larger chunks. Spoiled much?

So, monkeys are a curious bunch, and they've been on my mind again lately on account of some research that's started to make the rounds of news sites. It's on BPA — the chemical added to plastics to make them hard and is now known to pose health risks. Well, it also apparently feminizes male behavior in monkeys. The dangers appear to be most linked to prenatal exposure. In monkeys, research published this year in the journal Psychoneuroendocrinology shows that prenatal exposure of monkeys to BPA causes male monkeys to cling less to their mothers and look away more while clinging. Supposedly this is more typical of female infants in the species of monkey studied (long-tailed macaques, a close relative of rhesus macaques).

Chemicals added to plastics to make them softer are also blamed for feminizing behavior — and this time the research comes from humans. It's not experimental data, but pilot research published in the International Journal of Andrology shows that preschool-aged boys with more exposure to phthalates in utero were less likely to engage in stereotypical boyish play, specifically play fighting and playing with trucks and guns.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Weird mailing prohibitions in foreign countries

This morning I had to look up the USPS postal rate to send a letter to Germany, which was easy and I got just the info I was looking for: 98 cents. But I also found something I didn't expect: the inclusion of a strange item on a list of mailing prohibitions to the country — melatonin. Weird, but understandable. I wondered to myself what other weird exclusions might be found for international mailing, so I browsed the listings for other countries and discovered these.

Weird International Shipping Prohibitions:
Feeding bottles to France
Maps showing incorrect borders of Ecuador to Ecuador
Chain letters to the Czech Republic
“Musical” cards (that play a recording when opened) to Bulgaria
Leeches to Cyprus (why single out leeches?)
Police whistles to Guatemala
Bells to Italy
"Extravagant" clothes to Albania
Stilettos to the Dominican Republic
Rulers not in the metric system to Mali
Walkie-talkies to Great Britain
Blank invoices to Costa Rica
Pencils to Tunisia
Soap or socks to Syria
Newsprint paper to Guyana
Butter substitutes to Canada
Shaving brushes made in Japan to St. Lucia
Suitcases to Paraguay
Playing cards to Greece
Footballs to Iran (if they're made of pigskin)
Cassette tapes to Iraq (as if that's the only thing that's keeping terrorism alive there)

Paper and writing products (envelopes, ink, pencils, pens, erasers, chalk, etc.) to Sri Lanka.

... and whatever you are thinking of sending to Peru, forget about it because it's probably on the extensive list of things prohibited in mail sent to Peru.

Among many countries there are also the usual postal prohibitions, such as live plants, perishable food and material which may be offensive, such as pornography or religious material that isn't congruent with the state religion (such as Bibles to countries that are predominantly Muslim) as well as articles that may interfere with the country's commerce, such as leather shoes and straw hats to Ecuador, but the unexpected, other oddball prohibitions surprised me.

I also didn't expect so many countries to ban goods made by prisoners or convicts, but many do. Postal items bearing the mark of the Red Cross are also prohibited by a handful of countries in Africa, and many poor countries around the world prohibit people from mailing used clothing, be it shoes, hats or shirts. Maybe that's to prevent the spread of lice? I don't know. That would make sense, but newsprint to Guyana? Do they not want people to start up printed newspapers or what? It's not like newsprint is dangerous like stilettos are! Perhaps they really do not want people to produce printed material. Hell, in Sri Lanka, the government doesn't even want you to write.

Friday, November 06, 2009

Mealtime Psychology

Spending a week with a toddler reminded me of exactly how valuable knowledge of basic psychology can be when it comes to mealtime with a 'picky' two-year old. They are notoriously picky about what they'll eat, but rather than giving in and catering to it, parents can use a few psychological tricks to get kids munching on healthy foods.

One easy one is to give kids a concrete goal and a reward. The reward doesn't have to be sugary treat like a cookie or candy either; it can be whatever the child wants to do more than eat. In psychology, this is known as Premack's principle. For my little charge, it was a newspaper ad insert for Toys-R-Us. With obvious enjoyment, he pages through it and points out toys he likes, naming each one, and can occupy himself for a good long time. So, when he got distracted at mealtime by its presence at the corner of the table, I used that as an opportunity. I eyed his plate and estimated he had about 6 bites left (about two less than he started the meal with) and told him he could look at the flier after he ate 6 bites. He knows numbers so he knows what that meant, roughly. After each bite I told him what a good job he'd done and made a rather embarrassingly big deal of it, exclaimed how many bites he had successfully eaten. I switched to the number of bites left when he had already eaten half of them. This way, he got 'social rewards' right away for doing some of the work and when he got close to being done, he had only a small, easily met problem ahead of him. Once he ate all the bites, I gave him the toy catalog. You have to follow through if you want this incentive-reward strategy to work, and you have to be imaginative with non-sugary rewards. The goal also has to be concrete and reasonably easy to meet.

Another trick is to make eating a game. "Airplaning" food in is an obvious trick, but food can also be animated. He had dinosaur-shaped chicken nuggets one day that he didn't want to eat. So I stabbed one with a fork and walked it across the plate and made a game of him biting off the dino's head, then its tail, feet and so on. Toothpicks can be used to make little men out of food too. A grape head, cooked mini carrots for arms and legs, etc. One of his forklift trucks delivered a bite of sandwich.

Both goals and games work well for getting kids to eat food they don't want to eat, but there are a few things that can be done beforehand to prevent even getting to that point.

Arranging small amounts of different kinds of foods on their plate can help kids eat more and also eat a more well-rounded diet. If one type doesn't go over well, they only have to eat a few bites of it. Yes, it takes more time to prepare, but the extra effort I think is worth it and it sets up the habit of a lifetime of eating a well-balanced meal.

Color is a good one to use to advantage too. Colorful foods are also likely to be more nutritious and can be arranged in an artful way: faces are a good choice because they have concrete 'goal' parts that can be eaten. An ear here, an eye there and soon enough the meal will be in the tummy rather than on the plate still, or worse, the floor.

Kids can and should also help make their meal. It teaches them parents and others aren't there simply to wait on them, and it gives kids an opportunity to make decisions and take ownership of their food. If so inclined, kids can also help grow the food by starting a garden or helping maintain one. Every little bit of involvement can help.

When we get to the point of having li'l Baby Field Notes eat with us, I really hope some advance planning will help us avoid having a picky eater. I like the idea of never giving her an option to eat something different from what we're having. I think our little charge always had something different at dinner, and it was always less nutritious, which struck me as weird. If I ever need to babysit again for a stretch of time, for crying out loud, I am going to the freaking grocery store and buying fruits and vegetables! And I will cut them up into little tooth pick stick men and drive them in on a dump truck if that's what it takes.

"I Wanna Dumb Fuck"

Got your attention with that one, I'm guessing.

"Dumb Fuck" is exactly what it sounds like my little nephew says when he says "dump truck." The first time I heard it, he was asking me to zoom one of his toy dump trucks around: "You dumb fuck!"

I could have died. And then I figured it out. It's a terribly unfortunate mispronunciation. Why couldn't he just say "dunk tuck" instead????

Later told us he wanted to go "see the dyke. " Ahhhrrrruh??? We figured out that he wanted to go see whether he could see in the dark after we bribed him to eat his carrots.


And so began our introduction to toddler-speak. My pregnant sister's water broke 2 months early and she has had to stay put in the hospital on strict bed rest, IV fluids and antibiotics and steroids for the developing baby's lungs, and since her son had never been in daycare, we went to her house to take care of him for the week. Now it's my dad's turn. He's really good with kids and I am sure he won't have any trouble understanding the little guy.

It sure brought back memories of taking care of my little sisters. I had forgotten some of my favorite toddler speak:

Irtday Ardy! (Birthday party)
Chet Boyardee (those horrid raviolis in a can)
Fo Fo Fire (pacifier)

That last one stuck so much in my mind, that I still call pacifiers "fo fo fires" in jest. Around our house, being young adults of the 90s, we have warped it into a "Foo Fighter" because really, the magical plastic nipple does fight "foo," a catchall term that can encompass so many baby complaints.

I am really looking forward to some adult conversation. Seriously. I now understand why moms sometimes slip inadvertently into toddlereez. Once you've been immersed in a second language like that, it's hard not to slip back into it. I really do not want to be one of those people.

The other thing I observed about toddler 'language' is that he readily recognized symbols that are part of language, even if they aren't English letters. Baby Field Notes has a quilt to play on that has Japanese hirigana on it and as soon as he saw it, he pointed to them excitedly and exclaimed, "Letters!" I thought that was really cool.

It was also really neat how he repeated immediately, and in the same tone, something I said without thinking — and fortunately — it was G-rated! ((Phew!!))

Round and round the mulberry bush......

POP! Goes the weasel.

He had a toy that played the tune and I naturally sang along without realizing. Pop! Goes the weasel, he instantly repeated. Yep, we heard that an awful lot after that. I had assumed someone already had taught him the words to it, but when his dad came home from work, he asked if we taught him the song.

It's impressive, that the ability to repeat something heard or seen just once, and it is easy to take it for granted. It's one of those hallmark human abilities. Apes imitate, but not with nearly the same facility.