Simple Bird Valentines
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Full disclosure: I did not come up with this idea. There are many tutorials floating around the internet, and I read through lots of them in my planning. But none of them quite worked out how I wanted, so I thought I’d share what I did that worked well.

February is a hungry time of year for our foraging friends. The scattered seeds of Autumn are long gone, the first tender shoots of Spring still weeks away. It’s a good time to feed the birds, to share some of our stored bounty with them as we watch the light return and feel the ground start to wake up. This is also the time of year when, proverbially, the birds start looking for their mates—an observation that forms some of the basis of our modern celebration of Valentine’s day.

At the beginning of the year, a lot of the kids in our playgroup were working through separation anxiety. When they would cry at their caregiver’s departure, I would often take them outside—the fresh air was amazingly soothing and they would quickly be distracted by all the plants and birds and feel safe and secure in themselves and the space. Eventually I transitioned to just looking outside the big window at the birds. Even now, though most separation anxiety has dissipated, they love to go and watch the birds first thing in the morning. For a city backyard, we have so many kinds! Morning doves and bluejays, cardinals and sparrows, and even the occasional hawk all grace our yard.

As I thought about how we’d celebrate Valentine’s day with the same simple, nature-centered approach we take with all festivals, I immediately thought of doing something for the birds—some gesture of gratitude for these beautiful creatures that have brought the children such peace and joy throughout the year. Of course, these don’t have to be Valentines, they can just be regular bird feeders. But I thought that tie-in was cute and a nice way to channel the holiday excitement.

About the ingredients

Millet is a great protein rich grain that lots of birds love and that’s easy to buy in bulk (an important consideration as we try to minimize our waste. Bulk millet I can buy in my reusable cloth bag, bird seed I’d have to buy in a plastic one). If you have a small-grain birdseed that would likely work too, but something like sunflower seeds wouldn’t. Unflavored gelatin is fine for the birds—just don’t get actual Jell-o. It has lots of essential amino acids and is actually a very similar product to the collagen peptides I put in my coffee. When you hang the finished Valentine, make sure there’s another branch right beneath it so the birds have something to stand on while they eat. Also: these might become squirrel Valentines, which is fine IMHO, but something to be aware of.

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You’ll need:

Unflavored Gelatin

Millet

Heart-shaped cookie cutters

Parchment paper

Some sort of tray (a cutting board or baking sheet works well)

A bowl, a spoon, and a measuring cup

String

Some patience and tolerance for having millet all over your floor (might I direct you here)

A few notes before you start:

Set everything up before hand. I always skip this step at home, but I can’t overemphasize how helpful it is when working with children. I like to keep my project supplies for something like this in a basket, all ready, covered with a cloth. This helps build some anticipation for the project and will help “hold” the activity more than if you’re constantly getting up and running around to get another ingredient.

Find a low table over a hard floor so they can use their full range of motion as they help.

Most of this, except the boiling water and the careful removing from cookie cutters, can be done by toddlers. The pouring, stirring, scooping, and stringing are all great activities to help them develop their dexterity, practice hand-eye-coordination, and do a whole lot of other developmental movement. Let them take a long time with things and spill a little, it’s all okay. And hot water gets gelatin out easily.

This will make about 4 bird feeders.

Prepare the gelatin:

(I did these first two steps right in a glass measuring cup with a handle, which made for less cleanup and easy pouring.)

Dissolve 1 packet gelatin in 1/4 cup water. Yes, you need to actually measure, I learned this the hard way. Kiddos can stir as the powder dissolves.

Add 1/4 cup boiling water and stir. Obviously be careful not to burn anyone.

Mix in the millet:

Put some millet in a larger bowl. This part I didn’t measure—maybe 2 cups to start? Have more on hand so you can mix until the ratio looks right.

Slowly pour the gelatin mixture into the millet, stirring as you go. Add more millet until the mixture looks more like wet millet than like millet soup. There should be a little bit of liquid at the bottom of your bowl if you scoop a spoon across it, but not much. Stir!

Shape the hearts:

Put some cookie cutters on parchment paper on your tray. The parchment paper is really key here, don’t skip it.

Fill the cookie cutters with the millet mixture, all the way to the top.

Now, this is essential, put another layer of parchment paper on top and smoosh the millet down into the cookie cutters. Really smoosh it. Kids are great at this, remind them to use their palms rather than their fingertips. If the level of millet sinks down a bit below the top of the cookie cutters as you do this step, you can add more and repeat.

Once they’re nice and smooshed, take a stick or a screwdriver or a pencil or something and poke a hole down through the middle. If you do this too close to the side the whole thing will break when hung. With the hearts, I did it in the middle of one of the lobes at the top, which worked well.

Finish:

Put them in the fridge for a few hours, preferably longer. Don’t use the freezer to speed it up.

When you take them out, remove the cookie cutters carefully. You also might have to re-poke the hole a bit.

String some string through the hole and hang them on a branch for the birds to enjoy!

Willow WestwoodComment
Raising Environmentalists

How do we raise environmentally consciousness children without instilling anxiety?

How do we teach children that the world is good in the midst of a climate crisis?

 
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Spend time outside

The more time children spend communing with the natural world, the more they’ll grow to value it and learn to respect it, nurturing the innate connection to the natural world they are all born with. Even a simple daily park outing will be a huge help! Helped by their natural inquisitiveness and unique ground-level perspective, toddlers will notice the subtle beauty of changing seasons and the millions of other species who share this land. I urge you to find the wildest possible place nearby and let them explore with as few boundaries as possible. Let them get dirty, roll around, pick up bugs…

Model environmentally conscious habits

Hopefully you’re already doing a lot to minimize your carbon footprint, but let the children be the motivation to shift some habits if you need to. In addition to biking, using cloth bags, composting, etc. make sure you’re also engaging in the politics of environmentalism. Call your representatives, march in the streets, make subversive art. Right now, we need to live with a fair amount of privilege to have the time/money/education/opportunity to change our habits. Without change in our policies, the responsibility to change will remain on the level of privileged individuals, the climate destruction of big companies will continue to be disowned by them. You don’t need to bring your children with you, but simply doing these things will make you embody the values you want them to carry with them through their own lives.

Make things

Consumerism is a huge cause of climate change. By making and growing your own things you’ll help your children see the work and resources that go into creating the objects we use every day. You don’t have to do everything, but give them a taste of it. If you can’t plant a garden, grow herbs in your window and go visit a working farm. If you can’t sew and knit your own clothes, mend them yourself and find a crafty friend they can watch. If you can’t build your own furniture, then fix things, hang paintings, assemble your own IKEA, and take them to see a sawmill or wood shop! Also shameless plug, send them to a Waldorf school! Practical arts are a huge part of the curriculum for just these reasons. Here are a few favorite local kid-friendly makers:

Stone Barns Farm + Hawthorne Valley Farm + ArtShack

Save big talk for when they can process it

Melting icebergs are so far outside of a young child’s consciousness, your talking about them will either go over their heads or create a lot of anxiety. Phrase things simply and center them around the good people are doing and actions you all can take to help. Instead of going off about all the people using plastic straws and littering and how turtles are getting these things stuck in their heads and dying, say “let’s help the birds in the park by picking these up so they don’t think they’re food!” Simple, close to home, and centered around a helpful action.

 
Willow WestwoodComment
Intentional Playthings
 
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So often in meetings I’ll hear a familiar story: “we have so many toys but my kid still complains about being bored!” “my child doesn’t play at home, they just throw things around!” “My kids are always fighting over toys but never actually playing with them!” “your clean-up time sounds so easy, ours is impossible!” My response is usually to have them look around the room (I have family meetings in my classroom): “What does their playspace look like? Do you have more toys than we have here?” “Yes.” They reply. “A lot more.” At home these children are faced mountains of toys, stuffed into chests and hidden under beds, strewn across the floor with half the parts missing. They’re so overwhelmed that they can’t focus on playing with anything for too long and become disoriented, causing stress for the whole family. The type, the quantity, and organization of playthings in the home is important for children’s healthy development and families’ general quality of life. No one means to cause harm by giving a child a toy, but alas, intentions aren’t everything. I urge caregivers to feel empowered as gatekeepers for the things coming into their children’s lives, not hopeless in the unending onslaught of consumerism.

Simple, Beautiful, and Few.

That is my mantra when selecting or recommending playthings. It helps me be a wise gatekeeper with what I choose to bring into the children’s lives, and is also helpful in deciding what should go.

 
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Simple

Toys should be minimally detailed and as open-ended as possible. Things like blocks and cloths are perfect examples of this—they don’t tell you what you should do with them, so the children have unlimited options with just one object! Also consider how open ended more inherently “fixed concept” toys can be. A simple wooden block with wheels can be a car, or a truck, or a taxi, or a racecar… whereas a more detailed toy car already tells the child what it should be, limiting their imagination.

Beautiful

Aesthetics are not frivolous. Children’s boundaries between themselves and their environment are thin, so when we fill that environment with beauty they feel it. They are highly sensitive—a toy that is obnoxious to us is doubly so to them, they just don’t always know how to process that! Toys should be made of natural materials so the experience of touching them is pleasant and natural. (My exception to this is plastic things like legos or magnet tiles for older children, as they’re amazingly open-ended and great for creativity, and easy to find second-hand.) Materials should also be considered for their environmental impact—we aren’t doing the children any favors by polluting their future home. Lots of small toymakers are using up-cycled materials these days, taking garments out of the waste stream and avoiding the impact of manufacturing new textiles!

Few

Toy overwhelm is a real problem for a lot of kids these days—having so many options that it’s hard to stick with anything for long enough to play deeply and always being able to turn to something new to stave off boredom rather than having to get creative and build grit. Too many sets beautiful wooden blocks is still a problem. Perhaps less of one than too many whirring plastic do-dads, but still overwhelming and not conducive to healthy, creative play. Try putting away all but one or two things in each of the toy categories listed below and see what happens over the course of a few weeks. You can always add more back in later if it seems their play would be deepened with another doll or set of smaller blocks for detailed castles.

Categories of playthings

None of these categories are mutually exclusive, nor is this guide meant to be limiting! Rather, this is intended to help you look at your toys to ensure a diversity of play opportunities are available. I’ve linked to some favorite playthings below!

Big Play

Big play is a broad but simple category that basically includes anything where the child’s body is a part of the play. Babies and toddlers naturally engage in this and will turn anything into big play-climbing on dollhouses, throwing wooden animals, etc.

A few essentials in this category are: a rocker board or boat, ropes or rolly polies, logs, big cloths, and something to climb into or under. Additionally, make sure to offer things for:

Fort-building

Construction on a larger scale. Big hollow blocks, cushions, playstands, stumps, lumber, sheets… This is also a great type of play to direct outside.

Dress up/big imaginative

A few pieces of cloth can be plenty for dress-up, especially for younger children! Older children might benefit from a few simple hats or crowns, and perhaps a vest or cape. Ropes or rolly polies can become tails, scraps of cardboard or rocker boards shields, sticks can become swords or canes. A “fireman” or “princess” costume is so limiting—let them design their own!

Small Play

Small play is usually done while sitting down on the floor, manipulating something small with one’s hands in a deliberate way. This is usually more popular with older children (think: 4 and up), but even toddlers will benefit from having some small playthings on offer.

A few essentials in this category are: cars, animals, blocks small enough for your child to fit in one hand, and small cloths or silks.

Construction

On a small scale, specifically. This category includes blocks, legos, etc.

Small scale imaginative

A toy barn is an amazing jumping-off point for imaginative play, and could be as simple as a wooden box where the toy animals “sleep.”

Imitative Play

Toys in this category are often less open-ended, but can be hugely important for older children looking to “play pretend” as well as younger children who are new to free play.

Dolls

Dolls are a special category all their own, though a special stuffed animal that the child practices nurturing could also be included. Expressions should be neutral and details minimal.

Kitchens

A toy kitchen is not an essential, but many children do love them. Make sure you at least have some open-ended toys that lend themselves to pretend cooking, tea parties, etc. (The Grimm cup stackers are great for this!)

Books

This category does not include storybooks, the reading aloud of which I don’t consider play. Rather, look for a few (sturdy!) books with few or no words and engaging pictures so the children can imitate reading and practice telling their own stories, and save story time for special “in breath” moments in your daily rhythm.

 
 
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Organizing Playthings

How toys are organized is nearly as important as what they are. To encourage the freest play possible it’s essential that toys be accessible, and to support the rhythm of your day it’s important that they be easy to put away and “close” when needed. Start by looking at where your child plays. Playrooms (or bedrooms with toys) are great for older children, but toddlers often want to be near the action, so storing their toys in another room is impractical and will hinder clean up time. Wherever your child typically plays, try to consolidate toys in that one location. Or, depending on your rhythm, keep a few options for a more limited playtime in a public space, then the majority in a playroom for big free play time.

I generally find that a low bookshelf if the best bet for toy storage, anywhere in the house. You can even use the bottom few shelves of a larger bookshelf in a living room, or stack apple crates for a cheap and modular solution. Small toys can be sorted and stored in baskets or wooden crates on a low shelf, and can be covered with a cloth when “closed” if your child needs that visual reminder. Sorting is key—don’t keep all your toys in one basket or stuff the animals in with the blocks. Play books should be treated with great care and have a special home. Larger toys should be few to begin with, and all have a designated home. Perhaps the hollow blocks all stack on a certain wall, and the rocker board goes on top. If your child has any “furniture” such as a small table or kitchen or playstands, think about when you want them to be open or closed and how you can communicate that visually. I recommend against using kid furniture to store toy baskets when possible, as it often leads to toys being dumped off of the furniture so they can use it, then being walked over or otherwise not valued. When choosing baskets, chose ones that are flexible or sturdy—delicate baskets tend to break quickly when accidentally stepped in.

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Here are a few of my favorite things to support free play. Some links are affiliate, which support our work by earning us a small commission. You can also look at your local natural toy shop—I love Acorn in Brooklyn, share in the comments if you have a favorite in your area!

 
Willow WestwoodComment
Being Worthy of Imitation
 
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“Being Worthy of Imitation”

As a new teacher, I remember being told that the children would imitate everything I did, so everything I did had to be worthy of imitation. I was 20, and didn’t know how to do this—I was so shaky in my sense of self already, was I going to have to change who I was to be a good model for them? Who am I to show them how to be in this world? As the years have gone on, I am eternally grateful to that initial advice and the unrelenting pressure of the children who never let me fake anything and who’s trust imbues me with the confidence to be worthy of it.

Start with Self Work

 

Do what you need to do to truly embody what you’re bringing them. Unpack your programming, do the yoga, meditate…

Young children learn through imitating the actions of others, adults especially. They will imitate your speech patterns, your mannerisms, the way you answer the phone, the way you sweep the floor. But they will also see subtler things, like the way you communicate with your partner or the way you respond to disappointment. As they imitate, they internalize the behaviors and take them as their own. They are so eager to learn how to be in this world, and they trust us to show them the way. As the adults who spend time around them, that leaves a lot of pressure on us to be worthy of their imitation, to embody the values we want them to hold. This is why the answer to many questions I am asked is to start with self work. 

An example

I am terrible at being the “nap teacher.” I worked in an aftercare program for a year, where the children were expected to nap or rest quietly for a good hour and I could barely get my group to sit quietly for a half that time. Even later, when my kindergarten class would have a 10 minute rest time, they would be so squirmy and chatty and restless and I couldn’t figure out what it was! What I realized (with the help of more experienced teachers) was that I was not embodying restfulness. I was so anxious, my mind was racing, thinking of what was coming next and what I needed to do. I wasn’t resting on the inside, and they were imitating that! So, I tried to feel restful during rest time, I tried to deepen my breath and feel sleepy on the inside. And still, nothing really happened.

Interestingly, the same thing would happen to me at home when I tried to go to sleep. My experience of going to sleep was one fraught with struggle and anxiety—no wonder they picked up on that. It was only a year later when I started meditating and learning to drop into that restful, quiet state when putting myself to sleep that I was able to model true restfulness for the children in my class and get them to rest.

 

In this situation, I needed to change my entire experience of rest in order to understand how to embody it fully. My own childhood experiences of rest and bedtime certainly informed what I was bringing to the children in this time, and having never learned how to put myself to sleep I had to start there. Meditation was a tool for that, as was understanding that falling asleep is a skill that can be learned.

Start by asking yourself: what am I modeling for them in this situation? What is preventing me from fully embodying the gesture I want them to imitate? Then you can see where your actions are misaligned with your inner life and intentions, and you’ll know where to direct your work. This isn’t easy, and it doesn’t happen overnight, but thankfully the children don’t need us to be perfect. They need to see models of human beings who are striving for goodness—and by starting with self work you’re doing just that, and being worthy of imitation on that deepest level.

until I can truly trust myself in that situation—

Authenticity

 

If you don’t feel, on a deep level, like your authenticity is worthy of imitation, then it won’t matter how you speak or sweep the floor.

All of that work can feel like an opportunity to change yourself, to contort yourself to be what you think an ideal caregiver would look like. That won’t work. You already are an ideal caregiver, the children are with you for a reason. Yes, we all have unconsidered habits, unexplored beliefs, things that we need to work out, but all of that should be in pursuit of being your most authentic self, not an attempt to mold yourself into some angel goddess in a pink skirt who likes singing in the pentatonic scale all the time (unless that’s your jam, then more power to you).

In fact the highest, most valuable thing we can model is authenticity, being secure with ourselves on a deep level. If you fake it, they’ll learn that inauthenticity is the way to success—they’ll learn to bury themselves and be whomever the world pressures them to be. Let this be your permission to be yourself, and the kick in the ass you need to figure out who that is and love it deeply. If you don’t feel, on a deep level, like your authenticity is worthy of imitation, then it won’t matter how you speak or sweep the floor. That is really the key to this, and where some of the hardest work lies. Once you trust yourself to be imitated, the rest will flow.

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Willow WestwoodComment
Notes From Our Kitchen
 
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Over the years I have had parents stop me, wide eyed, in the middle of a sentence when I’m reviewing classroom snack time during our meetings: “she eats three helpings of rice and lentils???” I hear that, at home, these children are incredibly picky eaters and am begged for recipes. My recipes are simple, heavy on the butter, and I’ve shared a favorite below. But there’s also so much more to it than that. Yes, there are a lot of things we do that can’t necessarily be recreated at home: if there’s a bunch of kids, all eating the weird food, your kid will be way more likely to try it. But there are are also some shifts you can make in your home and in your approach to food and feeding your family to make your life easier and help your child to develop healthy eating habits and attitudes that will carry through to when they have to feed themselves.

Establishing a healthy relationship with food

We want children to develop the capacity to eat intuitively, to love food, and to use food as a way of nourishing—not punishing or rewarding or manipulating—themselves. This starts with you, their caregivers, treating it that way for them as well. Just as we discipline children in the way we want them to learn to self-discipline as they mature, so should we feed them with the attitude we want them to develop towards food. If you’re on any type of diet, try to keep it away from the dinner table. That is, try to find meals that everyone can enjoy (perhaps with some slight modifications) so you’re not modeling restrictive eating behaviors. Try not to talk about it with or around your kids, make it a part of your identity, or place values on foods as “good” or “bad.”

A great way to start creating this healthy relationship is to expose children to as wide a variety of foods as possible from an early age. Don’t be afraid to offer weird or new things! My colleague in Sag Harbor will put sunflower (or whatever’s available from the farm that day) microgreens in her class’ vegetable soup, and the children gobble them up because they think they’re noodles. Let your baby (after 6 months) sit at the table and give them whatever you’re having to taste, rather than relying on pures or special baby foods. When they’re older, don’t cook them a separate meal—that’s too much work for you, and they’ll be better off learning to eat whatever delicious dinner it is that you’re making yourself. I love this perspective on cooking for kids from Deb Perelman of Smitten Kitchen:

“I don’t aspire to unlock the Meanest, Most Terrible Mom Ever badge for refusing to be a short-order cook or to turn dinner into a battle of wills. I take this stance because I love cooking and want to protect this love by not burning out from preparing three dinners a night. What I do instead sounds radical but shouldn’t be: I cook what I crave, then tweak as needed to convince the kids to come along for the ride.”

A Few Tweaks

As much as I believe in feeding kids regular food, their growing bodies and developing gut systems do require a bit of extra consideration. When feeding children, I try to design meals that have protein, lots of good fats, and are easily digestible. Here are a few tweaks you can integrate into your cooking to make it more kid friendly:

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Cook with butter. Specifically grass fed and organic. Specifically lots. I spread butter on bread as thick as I would a nut butter—so thick you can see you teeth marks in it. Fat is necessary for all of us to metabolize many essential nutrients, and is especially important to children’s growing bodies and brains. It’s also delicious and will get them to eat most anything.

Soak your grains. This is one of the core tenants of Nourishing Traditions, which is a book I strongly recommend to anyone interested in further research. It helps pre-digest them, making their nutrients more bio-available.

Any sort of buffet-style, self-assembly meal is a great way to include everybody in the same meal while allowing for different needs and preferences. Try burrito bowls, loaded sweet potatoes, or grain bowls.

If you notice anything unusual in your child’s behavior, skin, or poops after eating certain things, get them allergy tested. Not eating foods you’re allergic to has such a positive impact on your life and relationship with food, especially for children whose guts are especially sensitive.

Tips for Picky Eaters

“Trying bites.” In response to pushed away food or no-thank-yous, I always say “you can have a trying bite.” even if they’ve had the food a hundred times before and always hate it. It’s a good practice, and so often they’ll try one tiny bite and then gobble the whole bowl.

Don’t bribe or negotiate around food—you’re just giving it weird emotional power it shouldn’t have. No “three more bites and then you can have desert.” Food is necessary for our bodies to function properly. When we eat well, it feels good, and that is reward enough.

If your child consistently refuses dinner, then is hungry again soon after, try just covering the plate when they clear it and then offering it again when they ask for a snack. A simple way to make sure they don’t feel like they can manipulate you into feeding them cheddar bunnies for dinner.

Our Kitchari

This is based on a few traditional recipes that have been shared with me over the years, simplified to make it easier to make it the classroom and appeal to even the pickiest of eaters. Tweak the spices as you see fit, or use your favorite curry spice bled. It makes an excellent savory breakfast, and is great for lunch or dinner with some veggies on the side!

Ingredients

 

3 Tbsp butter or ghee

1/4 tsp ground coriander

1/4 tsp ground cumin

1/4 tsp ground ginger

1 tsp ground turmeric (+ a dash of black pepper to help with absorption)

1 1/2 cups red lentils

1 1/2 cups short grain brown rice

1 can full fat, thickener-free coconut milk

4 cups water

Sea salt to taste

note: all measurements are quite approximate

 

Process

  1. Optional: soak the rice and lentils (cover them, in separate bowls, with warm water and a dash of apple cider vinegar, let sit in a warm place for about 7 hours. Drain when you’re ready to cook them.)

  2. In the bottom of a dutch oven or rice cooker, melt the butter or ghee. Add the spices and stir until they start to smell amazing.

  3. Add the rice and lentils and stir until they’re covered in the fat/spice mixture and slightly warmed.

  4. Add the can of coconut milk and water.

  5. Bring to a simmer, then turn down and cover until done. If you’re using a rice cooker, just let it keep doing it’s thing.

  6. Add sea salt to taste, then serve! Grownups and spice-loving kids might like some hot sauce or chili flakes on top.

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Willow WestwoodComment
Thoughtful Giving

In this season of consumer madness, I wanted to create a gift guide of simple, beautiful things and experiences—both those that support the work of childhood, and those that will bring some joy and warmth to those grownups who devote their time to children (parents, babysitters, teachers, what-have-you.) I hope that this guide can inspire you, as you search for tokens to show your love and bring some cheer to the cold dark of winter, to give gifts that will not only be thoughtfully given, but have also been thoughtfully made and will be thoughtfully used. Merry merry!

 

For Children

A warm wooly coat with big buttons so they can practice.

A cup that’s just their size and (usually) won’t break when dropped…

a year’s supply of fancy pink tea.

A few special toys to inspire their play. (Nesting cups, hen, squirrel, crayons)

 

Warm and waterproof winter boots that allow them to use their feet naturally, made by an Indigenous-owned Canadian company that values the continuation of traditional crafts.

A collection of beautiful, wordless books about the simple pleasures of each season.

A rocker board to help them learn balance.

A wee handmade basket for organizing toys and carrying treasures.

A special handmade doll to practice caregiving.

A gorgeous playsilk to be a cape or a blanket or the roof of a fort.

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A session of Forest School, to help them find nature in the city.

For Caregivers

A gorgeous layer with pockets to hold lots of sidewalk treasures.

A mug to wrap chilly hands around and…

some high-vibe hot drink mix to brighten up a grey day.

A learn-to-knit class, to have a new skill to practice while they play.

A matching pair because big feet get cold too.

One of my favorite books, to learn about life and caregiving from a brilliant woman and the plants she knows well. (try the audio version, her voice is good company on long stroller nap walks)

 

A natural rubber yoga mat (and a class pass at a favorite studio) to find some balance again.

A beautiful basket backpack for elegantly schlepping to the park and inspiring daydreams of beach days to come.

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Nice smelling new age-y soap to practice self-care giving.

A silk in a more subdued palate (or not, you do you) because they make the world’s best scarves.

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Tools to bring more intention and ease to anyone’s work with children, through our Conscious Caregiving workshop series.

 

A Note on Sourcing:

To make this accessible for everyone, I included mostly things that can be bought online. If you’re looking to shop locally: Acorn is a lovely toy shop in Brooklyn, Art Shack has the most incredible ceramics (and classes for older kids!), Purl Soho has all great natural materials for anyone crafty, and Stonefruit has beautiful plants and planters for your work proximity associates.)

Willow WestwoodComment
Getting started with Family Festivals
 
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Just as we work with daily and weekly rhythms to help the children feel secure and comfortable in the world, we can work with the larger rhythms of the year. It is important to adjust things in response to the changing seasons—longer, looser days in the summer, more structure, earlier bedtimes in the winter. And just as I’ll mark transitions during our daily rhythm with a song or a verse, we as a culture have learned to mark transitions during the rhythm of the year with festivals. These regular, seasonal festivals are powerful for children and help them to feel at home in the universal family of humanity and our planetary ecosystems.

It’s a fact of modern life that many of us are living far removed from our ancestral heritage, from the indigenous traditions that kept us in touch with these natural rhythms in centuries past. Still, bits of these traditions have wormed their ways into popular culture, and many more of them are available to those who search. It is us to us to find ways to re-integrate and re-create festivals that feel powerful and true to our ancient humanity and modern realities. Here are a few ideas to get you started:

Finding Inspiration

If you were raised with a strong festival life, think about the parts of it that still speak to you that you want to carry onward. Did you love lighting candles and singing with your whole community on Christmas Eve, but hate other parts of going to church? Find a way to have a singing and candle lighting ceremony around that time of year with your family, or even open it up to your extended community. As someone of European descent living in America, I like to turn to the traditions of pre-Christian Europe for my own festival life, and to research and appreciate and participate in the traditions of people from other backgrounds when invited.

As you’re creating a festival rhythm, start small and keep track of what you’ve done. The more you work with this the more ideas you’ll come up with, so chose carefully and keep things consistent from year-to-year. Find an organization or place or group of people that holds festivals you like, or is interested in creating some with you. Schools are a great place for this, especially Waldorf schools, as we lovingly create large, community festivals for just this purpose. But it’s also lovely to do a little something just at home, just for your family.

 

elements of a festival

  1. Food

    Food is one of the most intimate ways we can connect with the earth. Eating seasonal, traditional foods is a big way of marking festivals, especially for children. If you’re creating a new tradition, look at what the earth is producing that time of year—squash and root vegetables in autumn, greens and eggs and cream in spring, naturally preserved foods and root cellar staples in the winter.

  2. Song

    Music marks time. We know how powerful it can be because of how angry people can get if you start playing Christmas music outside of December. Find little songs that feel seasonal to you, and integrate them into your festivals. (Some resources below!)

  3. Ceremony

    Think about the feeling or gesture you’re trying to evoke, and find an activity that holds that feeling. In the dark of winter we often light candles to remind us of our inner light, and light them in community to remind us of it’s power. In the bright ecstasy of spring we make things out of rainbow colors, dance, and work with flowers. Find something, however small, that you can do with reverence and intention.

 
 

Resources

When finding songs for festivals I often work with the Wystones series—they have one for each of the 4 seasons we experience in this part of the world. All the Year Round is full of bigger ideas for festivals and celebrations and lots of simple, beautiful crafts to share with the children. Both of these selections are lovely, and include general, nature-based seasonal songs and ideas as well as some inspired by religious holidays.

 
 
Willow WestwoodComment
Caregiver essentials for Cold Times
 
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In the rhythm of the year, cold seasons are a time to turn inward: to think, to tend to our inner lives, to stoke our inner fires and remind ourselves of our creative capacity. They’re really a beautiful time of year, but can tend to grate on us as the mornings get dark and our toes get cold. One of the things I love about being a Waldorf early childhood teacher is that these rhythms of the year form so much of the basis of our curriculum, giving me the opportunity to work with them really intentionally. At first, I was shocked by the amount of time I was expected to spend out in the cold, and would get miserable after a few weeks because I felt like I was constantly covered in 7 layers of wool, still cold to my bones. After a few years of practice I feel like I’ve developed some pretty effective strategies for staying warm, happy, and available to get in touch with that inner creativity that has so much potential this time of year.

Practices

Movement. My yoga studio is a warm, cozy, wonderful place in the cold weather. My body doesn’t like anything too intense, but taking the time to slowly and carefully flow through my vinyasa practice, followed by restorative yoga under lots of cozy blankets, warms me up from the inside and helps me re-set. Find a movement practice that feels good to you to keep your energy from getting too stagnant.

Breathing fresh air and getting some sun on my face. This means getting outside, for as long as possible, every day, especially during the limited daylight hours. I do this every day as part of my work, but try to find some time outside just for myself, as well. Getting out in the cold makes me enjoy it more and feel happier and warmer. Try hiking, or skiing, or just taking long walks around the neighborhood. Bundle yourself up and go sit in the park on your break.

Lighting candles. I buy tea-lights and tapers in bulk this time of year, and light up the house by candlelight in the morning and evening. It’s so beautiful and cozy and feels like a way of embracing the long dark days. I always use beeswax candles, since paraffin wax is petroleum-based.

Potions

Lanolin is the best lip balm, face balm, chapped cheeks treatment, hand cream, everything. Sheep produce it to help insulate themselves when wet, and I swear it does the same thing for me. It smells a little… barn-y, but its magical abilities to keep my skin soft and warm more than make up for it.

A hot drink to carry with you everywhere. I love my insulated Kleen Kanteen because it keeps my coffee hot for so much longer, whether I’m outside in the freezing cold or just drinking it really slowly because children keep needing me. A hot drink will warm you from the inside out and do wonders for the spirit. I switch over to Earl Grey or adaptogenic coffee in the afternoon to keep myself awake past the 4pm sunset without getting too wired.

Elderberry syrup of some sort for keeping sniffles at bay. Mythic Medicinals makes arguably the best around, but it can be hard to get your hands on (she sells out fast!). Here’s a recipe to make your own, and some elderberries to get you started.

Woolies

 
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I know I sound like such a Waldorf teacher, but trust me: you need long underwear. You know how you’ll be outside on a cold day and your legs will be freezing even though you’re wearing your coat and boots? That’s because denim isn’t warm—you need something to insulate your legs! (This took me longer than I’d care to admit to figure out.) I wear these silk long underwear on all but the coldest days, when I switch over to a merino pair. They’re warm but thin enough to wear under skinny jeans, don’t itch or really feel like anything at all, and won’t leave you sweating when you go inside.

My feet are always cold from about October on, so wool socks are non negotiable. Darn Tough makes the best around—they’re super warm and guaranteed for life. Don’t try to make it through a New York Winter wearing cotton socks, that’s just mean to your toes.

My number one Waldorf teacher hack is wearing a playsilk as a scarf. They’re super soft and light as air and just a little scrap around your neck will warm you up a lot.

A good hat, and a good way to prevent hat hair. You lose a lot of heat from the top of your head, and a hat will keep you warmer than a sweater (so says my mother, who is generally correct about such things.) I love the hats my friends at Lynn and Lawrence make—they’re the perfect, simple beanies, hand knit from super warm alpaca by women’s knitting cooperatives in England and Peru. As for hat hair, I like to throw my long straight-ish hair into a low braid before going outside. Solana has very curly hair and will wear braids or twists, then curl them into a low bun before she puts a hat on. Braids, etc. will also protect long hair from the harsh cold and wind, preventing breakage and helping with the midwinter frizz.

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Conscious Caregiving

In this ongoing series we will share with you the tools you need to bring more ease and intention into your relationships with children, whatever they look like.

 
Willow WestwoodComment
Recommended Reading
 
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VOTE.

VOTE. For the love of Oprah, vote. Vote like your freedom, health, planet, and children depend on it. Vote like other people’s freedom, health, planet, and children depend on it. Vote because these decisions will impact a lot of people who don’t have a say in them because of institutionalized racism and voter disenfranchisement. (If you want to vote and can’t, that’s awful, I’m sorry. As I told a 14 year old when I was text banking yesterday: get other people to vote. Volunteer. Register as soon as/if ever you can.)

Find out if you’re registered here. Find your polling place here. Learn more about your ballot here. Lean about NYC ballot initiatives here. Volunteer (from your couch while your kid naps) to get out the vote here. Chalk the vote here! If they try to turn you away, they cannot, under federal law. Request a provisional ballot. More here.

Back to our regularly scheduled programming:

I was reminded a few times this week of this old article by folk herbalist and mother Amber Magnolia Hill, offering a beautiful, honest perspective on the value (for the whole family) of helping babies learn to sleep. From Mythic Medicine

On the importance of rhythm and routine for parents, too. From Latonya Yvette. (Quick read.)

Tips for nurturing gratitude in growing children. Much of this is aimed at older, school-aged children, but No. 2 (and 7) especially is so on point for even the youngest children. From Cup of Jo.

Oh, and VOTE. (Why? Because I said so.)

Willow WestwoodComment
Recommended Reading
 

A WEEKLY-ISH GATHERING OF ARTICLES, ETC. To share, ponder, and inspire.

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Kim John Payne (I love and constantly recommend his books) on how children respond to violent tragedies, and how to help them. Written in the wake of the Sandy Hook School Shooting, this is sadly, heart wrenchingly still very relevant. From Waldorf Today.

A sweet, honest take on cooking for and feeding young children, plus a yummy, easy, weeknight dinner recipe. From Bonne Appetite. (Quick read.)

An intense perspective on the addictive nature of screen-based-media and the importance of imposing strict limits for children, from leaders in Silicon Valley. “The people who are closest to a thing are often the most wary of it. Technologists know how phones really work, and many have decided they don’t want their own children anywhere near them.“ (this whole series is good.) From the New York Times.

Inspiration for simple, fun, zero waste halloween costumes for kids. From Reading my Tea Leaves. (Quick read.)

Have you read anything good this week? Please share!

Willow WestwoodComment
Getting Dressed: Shoes
 
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Shoes are an important, and often overlooked, part of children’s wardrobes—especially in New York, where we walk so much, and especially in any very active, outdoor focused program like our playgroup. I always recommend the most minimal, spacious shoes possible, while still protecting feet from snow and broken glass and such. Our feet are incredible feats of evolution, with many tiny muscles and bones. When given the freedom to do so, our foot muscles will become strong enough to support themselves and our entire bodies with grace and balance. Overly “supportive” or constrictive shoes, especially for children, prevent those muscles from developing properly and working naturally, leading to things like collapsed arches and impairing the vestibular system.

A note on “correct” feet: some physical therapists find that the sensation of wearing shoes on opposite feet is actually comforting for some children, and engages their balance in a way they are seeking. For children who consistently and intentionally do this, I don’t make a big deal out of it. When I think it was just an oversight, I say “I see your shoes are on opposite feet.” and they usually switch them themselves. I also try not to say “wrong” or “right” feet because it feels judgmental and confusing (do you mean correct or the opposite of left?).

I’ve shared some favorite choices shoe throughout this article—click the image to shop! Some links are affiliate, which support our work by earning us a small percentage of each sale.

 

Inside Shoes

In our playgroup, the children wear what I call “inside shoes” or “classroom shoes”—soft-soled, fitted slippers or moccasins that keep their feet warm without being slippy, but still allow them to use and articulate their feet as if they were barefoot.

I’ve always recommended Softstar Moccasins for this purpose: they’re well and ethically made, designed very intentionally, and have a sheepskin footbed that adds extra warmth on cold floors. They’re also pricy, so I’ve found Yallion Moccasins to be a great alternative, and much cheaper. Whatever you choose, look for something with natural materials and minimal ornamentation that will stay on through skipping, rolling, somersaults, etc. and is easy to put on.

 

Outside Shoes

 

When we venture outside, I want the same things for the children’s feet: warmth, traction, protection, and the opportunity to work naturally. All of these needs can be amplified in the outdoor environment, and we also have to think about waterproofness and stepping-on-broken-glass-proof-ness.

For sneakers, pay attention to closures, keeping in mind that most children don’t develop the dexterity necessary to tie a shoe until at least 4, and that even zip closures can be a challenge for toddlers who don’t have a lot of strength in their pincer grasp yet. When a child can put on and fasten their own shoes, it goes a long way towards dressing independence, which is my main goal when working with toddlers. Once a child is used to putting on their shoes (and coat and hat) by themselves, they’ll have the habits and grit necessary to learn to tie laces. But one thing at a time.

Softstar makes a slip-on outside shoe with a rubber sole that’s really nice in fair weather and will allow for the most natural foot articulation—especially good for early walkers. Plae shoes are designed to solve a lot of problems I see in other velcro sneakers: they have a functional pull tab, the tongue opens all the way out, and the straps don’t get un-threaded. These ones by Camper (also available here) are especially cool: they have a velcro tab and elastic laces which allow for a snug fit while being really easy to put on. Vans are surprisingly great as well: they’re minimal, have good grip, and really do allow the foot to work (which makes sense if you think about how much skateboarders need to be balanced and in touch with the small movements of their feet.) Here are some with a velcro closure, if needed.

I’ll get into winter boots and such in another post, but if your kid is our in the mud a lot, sneakers won’t cut it. Blundstones are a good choice for older children—toddlers might be weighed down too much, and the heavy sole doesn’t allow for much movement of the foot. Angulus makes a similar style boot with a lighter crepe sole that’s great for toddlers (and it comes in colors other than pink metallic, although that does look fun)

 
Pumpkin Carving
 
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Over the past week, every time I welcome the children in the morning, at least one is proudly hoisting a little pumpkin—a gift to our classroom. I ask families to participate in this fun Autumn ritual, and specify that the bring a pumpkin no larger than their child’s head (because that’s cute, and because it means they’re faster to carve.) Slowly every available surface gets a pumpkin: tables, windowsills, my desk, the table. Yesterday, I began carving.

Carving a pumpkin is one of the great joys in life, in my opinion. To children, it is nothing short of magic. All you need is a pumpkin (though any squash will do if you want to get creative), a pocket knife, a soup spoon, a tolerance for pumpkin-covered hands and acceptance of imperfection. (see this week’s Recommended Reading.) If you want to get thematic, Tasha Tudor’s Pumpkin Moonshine is a sweetly illustrated classic that is fun to break out around pumpkin carving time.

I sit down on the ground (for pumpkin carving is best done outside) and cut off the top. Opening the pumpkin and scooping out the seeds is always terribly exciting for children, and I let them stick their hands into the goop if they’re interested. Sorting through the pumpkin gets to get out the seeds can is super fun for (many) children, and will help develop their fine motor skills to boot. I try to save as many seeds as possible to toast later! One it’s all scooped out (this is where the soup spoon comes in handy), I begin to carve. Sometimes a happy face, sometimes a moon and stars, sometimes who knows. Never anything scary or complicated. Never anything perfect. In pops a candle and there you go—a shining gourd friend to light your path. It’s a simple, achievable creative task, with impermanent and fun results.

A few tips:

  • When making stars, cut them just like you’d draw a five pointed star—it’s easier to get the points to be the right size and angle.

  • Watch the angle of your knife, and aim to make the shape/hole bigger on the inside of the pumpkin than the outside. More light will get through this way.

  • If you plan on keeping your jack-o-lanterns inside, try putting them in a cool place like the fridge at night or whenever possible—it will extend their life significantly.

  • Obviously exercise caution when using a knife around children (and in general). Use proper knife safety protocol yourself so they have a good model, and teach them to give you some space when you’re using a knife.

 
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Toasted pumpkin seeds un-recipe:

(Try to buy an organic pumpkin—an heirloom variety is even better if possible. The seeds will be better. So will the planet and farmers and you.)

Save the seeds from a few pumpkins, depending on their size, until you have enough to lightly cover the bottom of your baking tray.

Rinse them and let them dry— a salad spinner will speed this up and is a good way for the children to be involved.

Once dry, toss them on a baking tray and give them a light coating of olive or avocado oil, a sprinkle of salt, and a dash of whatever spices you want to try and have on hand. I like to use a “curry” spice blend, but try anything!

Toast in the oven at 350 until they turn golden brown and yummy smelling, taking them out giving them a toss every so often.

 
Willow WestwoodComment