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Thinking vs. Making: Turning Imagination into Creativity

By Grace Lam

Enter any play-based preschool and you’ll witness a common scenario: little Alex is playing dress-up pirate; Casey is building a city; Sam is preparing a tea party for friends.

It is ordinary pretend play with this scenario of 3- to 5-year olds. They are just using their imagination: their actions are clearly reflective of what they see, hear and feel inside their minds.

Now ask yourself, did you visualize Alex in a black and white pirate costume with a plastic eye-patch or in a folded newspaper pirate hat and a sword made from taped-up, rolled paper? Did you see Casey deliberately stacking wooden blocks to create buildings or arranging cereal boxes as skyscrapers and delineating streets with ropes? Is Sam serving realistically, molded plastic cake or colorful construction paper food?

Most would agree with Einstein’s quote, “Imagination is more important than knowledge.” Dare I refute Einstein and extend his famous quote by saying that perhaps creativity is more powerful than imagination?

Imagination. Creativity.

We tend to use these words interchangeably, especially when describing a person’s trait. It’s true that most children are imaginative by nature, but are they born creative? Or is that a nature versus nurture debate? I dare to propose that without imagination, creativity cannot exist. One has to at least visualize it before one can get down to the business of creating it.

Younger preschoolers are usually very active in exercising their imagination by acting out ideas generated from their brains, but they do not have the dexterity to be creative. That requires finer motor skills and the ability to verbally express, plan, organize and execute.

Now let’s return to Alex and imagine that rather than using the dress-up bin, Alex sits down with an adult and they discuss what a pirate would look like and wear. They gather simple materials (newspaper, string, paper), determine how to put the materials together (rolling, folding, gluing, taping), and if it fell apart, how to build a sturdier second version.

In this uncomplicated exercise, the child learns the rudimentary steps of the creative process. S/he also learns to rethink how materials can be used in different ways. Children learn about perseverance through making mistakes, testing and re-testing, and improving upon their ideas. The reward of accomplishing a task then truly becomes intrinsic as children realize that the greatest pride comes from one that is earned.

Creativity is a trial and error process that gets refined with practice. Scarcity, necessity, perseverance and the arts also aid in heightening one’s creativity.

So, even at an earlier age, involving a young child in the process of bringing to life what they imagined can provide a strong foundation to flexible, open-minded thinking.

As parents, we are bound by resources such as time and money. It’s unrealistic to bring to life every desire or whim that comes from our children’s imagination, but it is feasible to help them open up possibilities by involving them on how it can be done, and providing open-ended, everyday materials that are easily accessible for them to work with.

As an example, a favorite childhood activity with my sibling was playing golf—in our house. We didn’t have a large house, but we used every available space and material to create it: jump ropes shaped into circles to represent water, laid-out newspapers as bunkers, plastic tubes as clubs, buckets as holes, walls and furniture as out-ofbound areas, and tightly rolled-up paper as golf balls. We had the classic combination of a healthy dose of scarcity and imagination to foster creativity.

How can parents and educators today create environments that encourage children’s imagination and creativity?

Return to the basics:

Provide materials/toys that aren’t designed for particular uses; the child can design how they are used. Examples are basic Lego blocks, Tinkertoys, string, odds and ends, tape, paper of various texture, sizes and color.

Exposure to the arts and culture:

Multicultural images and sounds expand the repertoire of design and function. Many local Bay Area festivals and museums can be attended for free.

Enjoy science and nature:

The natural world is full of beautiful, complex design patterns, texture and color and perfect working mechanisms to invoke wonder and awe.

Read together:

The words and colorful pictures naturally exercise mental imagery. I am no Einstein, but it doesn’t take a genius to witness the spark in a child’s imagination grow if you just spend a little more time being creative together. It’s one wise investment worth making.

Grace Lam is a third-year parent of Bay Area cooperative preschools that offer plenty of materials and open time to create for her two children (and sometimes for herself at the crafts and paint stations…Shh).

Living Your Family Vision

By Mireille McKee and Meg McLaughlin

Some days—okay, a lot of days—just getting from breakfast to bedtime with our little ones is a marathon. Cook, feed, clean, repeat. In the delightful chaos of the day, it can be hard to find the time and headspace to think about what a “family vision” is, let alone what your own family’s vision may be. But as I’ve experienced with my three boys, the days may sometimes feel like a marathon, but somehow the years flash by in a sprint. A family vision is what your shared aspiration as a family is, what you collectively value and hold dear. Articulating a family vision can help ground the day-today—providing a context for why we do what we do, and building an understanding with our children of what it means to be part of your own unique family.

This year, Little Wonders adopted “Living Your Family Vision” as our school theme. I remember thinking what a lovely idea I’ll never have time to implement! However, as Director Mireille McKee shared, a family vision can be created by simply sitting around the kitchen table with your children and discussing what the family means to each one of you. Prepare yourself for answers like, “Lights!” (huh?) and “Ice cream!” (clearly trying the power of suggestion), but you might also get a gem like, “there’s always someone to play with” or “a warm house.” With a little parental guidance and enthusiasm, you may find that your children already have a pretty good idea of what your family is all about.

I also found that talking about our family vision reminded my husband and me of who we want to be as parents. Sure, the days may often feel filled with diapers and driving, but in the little spaces of time, I think about how to role model gratitude, encourage their sense of humor, and grow problem solvers as we go about our day.

Which brings me to the living part of the family vision. Mireille recommended writing the vision down and posting it somewhere visible, where it can be referenced easily. Vision means knowing who you are, where you are going and what will guide your journey. It means knowing what it looks and feels like when you are living your values. Our boys have begun to adopt the vocabulary, talking about what is important to our family—and sometimes happily pointing out when a family member is not living out a value to their satisfaction. It’s always a work-in-progress, but it feels good to know that we’re working on stuff that’s important to us.

So how can you begin building your family vision? Here are four key components of creating and living your family vision (excerpted from a Little Wonders discussion document):

  1. Create the vision together. Listen to each other’s hopes and dreams. Talk until everyone has agreed and is committed to the vision. (In other words, create buy-in.) When your children are younger than school-age, this may be something that parents do together, and build into conversations with the children later. A school-aged child is developmentally ready to contribute to the family vision in more concrete ways.
  2. Maintain the vision. As a parent, hold yourself, your partner and your children accountable to the vision. If it looks like someone has behaved inconsistently, it is time to sit down and discuss what happened. Set household rules and limits that are consistent with the vision.
  3. Model the vision. The adults in the house must act as role models who demonstrate behaviors consistent with the vision. (Try building daily routines that support your values. We’ve instituted a nightly “Dinnertime Thanks” for everyone to share around the dinner table, and added “Something Funny” to our conversation starter of sharing a high and a low from the day.)
  4. Keep the vision relevant. When you encounter tough times, revisit the vision. The vision provides a great frame of reference to have discussions without blame or finger pointing. It allows you to focus on what to do, rather than putting people on the defensive.

Mireille McKee is mom of two grown children who value family and community, share gratitude daily and embrace living life fully. She has enjoyed being director of Little Wonders for the past 14 years. Meg McLaughlin is a Little Wonders and Family Connections board member, and is the mom of three boys.

Prereschoolers and Organized Sports

By Judy Jeschke

As a parent with children in both preschool and elementary school, I am often asked by parents with younger children when to start their children in sports. Will their children be behind their peers if they don’t start soccer and similar sports at a young age? While toddlers and preschoolers are beginning to master many basic movements, they are generally too young for most organized sports. Toddlers who participate in organized sports typically don’t gain any long-term advantage in terms of future sports and performances. In fact, children who are pushed into organized sports at too early of an age may be turned off to sports for many years, or even completely. I have had several friends who have experienced this with their preschool and kindergarten-aged children.

The National Association of Sports and Physical Education recommends preschoolers get two hours daily of physical activity: one hour of structured, adult-led activities, and one hour of unstructured, free-play. Additionally, they recommend that preschoolers not be inactive for more than one hour at a time, unless sleeping.

What activities are appropriate for young children?

A toddler or preschooler’s initial activities should be fun, challenging and build coordination, but not beyond their abilities. Preschoolers enjoy showing off their newly acquired skills, such as: hopping, skipping, jumping forward, balancing on one foot, catching a ball and doing a somersault. It is important for preschoolers to engage in a wide variety of movements and skills. Some activities that are ideal for preschoolers include:

  • tumbling
  • swimming
  • running or hiking
  • dancing
  • riding a tricycle or bicycle with training wheels
  • kicking or throwing a ball toward a goal or hoop
  • practice hitting a ball off of a tee-ball stand
  • childhood games, such as Duck, Duck, Goose; freeze
  • tag; or freeze dance
  • games that improve balance, such as pretending to be statues
  • using playground equipment

Most importantly is to teach young children to make being active a normal daily routine.

How do you know when children are ready for more?

At some point, your child will be ready to move beyond backyard activities into more formal organized sports and leagues. While every child reaches physical, emotional and developmental milestones at a different pace, by age five or six, most children understand concepts that are crucial to many sports. Some considerations for determining a young child’s readiness for organized sports activities include:

  • how patient they are
  • their ability to take turns
  • if they are ready to separate from their parents without meltdowns
  • their reactions when things don’t go their way
  • how well they play with others
  • if being the center of attention will get them upset
  • if a child desires to try a particular sport

Which program is best?
Once a child is ready to try an organized sport, choosing the right program can be tricky. Most young children have short attention spans and are easily distracted, so a setting with minimal distractions is ideal. Sports for preschoolers and kindergarteners should focus on having fun and building skills, and not the rules and regulations of the sport or competition. If a young child spends the whole game watching the other children or scores a goal for the other team, that’s okay as long as the child is having fun. If a child is not having fun, try to find out why and address the issue or find another activity.

A good program should also have enthusiastic coaches and a low coach-participant ratio where a child does not have to wait a long time for their turn. Coaches should use a show-and-tell format with physical demonstrations of skills and games. In my personal experience, the coach/participant ratio is particularly important. When my oldest son was four, we signed him up for a soccer class which had two coaches and approximately 12 children enrolled. He loved the program, so at the end of the eight-week session, we enrolled again at a different date and time. This time, the program had four coaches, and about 35 children, resulting in lots of waiting around. Instead of enjoying this class, my son was frustrated and bored. Finally, you should consider your child’s temperament. Some kids are inclined toward team sports, while others prefer to focus on their individual efforts. Often it may take a few tries, or seasons, before finding which sport is a good fit for a child.

Judy Jeschke is the mother to three talented and over-scheduled children, ages four, seven and nine. She is also a board member and the newsletter editor at United Methodist Co-Op (UMC) Nursery School. UMC Nursery School is a parent-directed, cooperative nursery school that offers a unique program for children 18 months to five years of age. It is located in Burlingame and is a member of the San Mateo Council of Parent Participation Nursery Schools. For more information, visit

Workings of the Young Child’s Brain

We’ve all experienced it—our young child’s middle-of-the-mall meltdown, the faster-thanthe-speed-of-light hit, push or bite of the child next to her, or the ear splitting cries of “I hate you.” We question why demons have taken possession of our angelic child while girding ourselves for the possible judgment and unsolicited advice about what we are doing wrong as parents. But there’s good news, parents—it’s not always our fault! In fact, when we understand what’s going on in our young child’s brain, we realize that this is actually very normal behavior for their age and developmental stage. Each challenging parental experience can be an opportunity to connect with our child and help her integrate the parts of her brain to become a resilient, welladjusted human. There is hope.
Since young children function primarily from the part of the brain ruled by emotions, requiring them to use logical thinking when experiencing “Big Feelings” is a very unrealistic and unfair expectation. I have sometimes observed parents treating young children as if they were miniature adults, but they aren’t. They are works in progress, and to expect them to behave as though they were mature, self-controlled adults is not only unfair, but not in sync with their brain development. In fact, the prefrontal cortex (PFC), which governs impulse control, self-reflection and the regulation of emotions, is not fully functioning until around 25 years old. Knowing this should encourage more realistic expectations of our young children. Honestly, many of us probably know full-grown adults who don’t have fully functioning PFCs!

In The Whole-Brain Child, Dan Siegel and Tina Bryson write about how parents can help their child’s brain develop in an integrated manner. They offer strategies for turning “any outburst, argument or fear into a chance to integrate your child’s brain and foster vital growth.” The authors relate that since the young child’s brain is governed by emotion, it’s “no wonder kids throw tantrums, fight or sulk in silence. [How reassuring to know our out-of-control kids are so normal, right?] The key here is that when your child is drowning in a right brain emotional flood, you’ll do yourself (and your child) a big favor if you connect before you redirect.” Example: When a child fell, skinned her knee and cried, I used to say, “Just a scrape—you’re okay,” and this use of logical thinking would immediately block my connection with the child. She didn’t feel understood, but felt dismissed by my remark and would turn away. Conversely, the times when I respond first with empathy, the child feels understood and we connect. When calm, she can then process her feelings using language and logic. Another whole-brain strategy is called “Name It to Tame It.” It involves the child retelling the story of a frightening or painful experience. Recently a family I know was in a car accident. I noticed that the almost three-year-old wanted to talk about what happened. Allowing the child to tell the story from her viewpoint and acknowledging that it must have been scary for her seemed to lessen her anxiety. When children are allowed to tell their stories, including expressing their feelings about what happened, their fears lessen and eventually go away. Why is this so effective? Telling the story helps the child integrate the emotional and logical parts of the brain to gain control over their nagging negative feelings. Putting the details in order, the experience into words, and then revisiting the difficult feelings enables a child to name her fears and emotions and then tame them. (The Whole-Brain Child contains 12 powerful parenting strategies.)

Of course, it helps if parents can restrain themselves from “flipping their lids” in times of intense emotion. (Watch the video below for an enlightening, humorous video illustrating this concept). This isn’t easy, but when we develop a personal strategy for mastering our own emotions—i.e., exercising, talking with a friend, mindful breathing, counseling, etc.—we don’t flip our lids and can stay in the moment to support our child. Modeling and sharing stress-reducing strategies with a young child can help her gain mastery over her own thoughts and emotions.

Ultimately, the parent’s job is to raise resilient, emotionally stable children who can face the challenges of life as independent, well-adjusted adults. Implementing wholebrain strategies can be very effective in helping parents achieve these positive outcomes.

Suggested Reading: The Whole-Brain Child by Daniel Siegel, M.D., and Tina Payne Bryson, Ph.D.

Roberta Templeman is a preschool teacher at Bunker Hill Nursery School and a parent educator at Little Wonders Parent/Child Center in San Mateo. She is the mother of three adult children and “Grandy” to two boys and a new baby girl.

It Takes a Village

“It takes a village.” So the saying goes. Turns out, that aphorism predates Hillary Clinton and her now infamous book tour. In fact, it dates back many generations throughout the African continent. Why has it endured so long? Maybe it has staying power because it expresses an important truth and genuine wisdom.

But in the modern day San Francisco Bay Area, providing children with the village they need to thrive is increasingly difficult. Career pressures, financial constraints and the fast-paced lifestyle conspire against the kinds of close-knit communities that once defined childhood.


How best to get those back? How best to provide our children with the loving communities of friends, parents and other caring adults who will usher them into school and then adulthood?

Parent participation nursery schools are one way. A case in point: The Woodside Parents’ Nursery School (WPNS) recently celebrated its 40th anniversary. In planning a celebration, organizers reached out to the community to find alumni. Within hours of postings on local email lists, we had emails from dozens of parents who had shared their children’s young years together. Whether it was 10, 20 or even 40 years ago, they were still in touch with one another, as were their now-grown offspring. Many of the schools in the San Mateo County Parent Participation Nursery Schools (SMCPPNS), of which WPNS is a member, were founded 40, 50 and even 60 years ago. This highlights the enduring value of parents and teachers coming together with a commitment to creating communities that, through shared sacrifice and love, expand their children’s capacity for learning and nurturing friendships.

What is it about sharing the preschool years that forges lifelong ties?

Perhaps it is because we, as parents, are in some ways as vulnerable and dependent upon others as the children we’re raising. We know our offspring need to learn the most important lessons of their lives: how to learn, how to make friends, how to be a friend, how to take turns and give, and how to trust others around them. But aren’t we also learning these same things all over again—as if for the first time—in this environment that is also new to us? As much as it is for our children, preschool is a training ground for parents. We learn from watching one another’s challenges and successes. We consult with our teachers and preschool directors to solve behavioral issues, and work in tandem with them in the classroom. We enlist other children in the class to solve whatever issues we’re having at home.

In taking part in the extended community of our cooperative nursery school, we also set an example for our children to follow. In a co-op, the expectation is that parents will participate in the community, contribute to work efforts, make new friends, and give as much time and talent as they can while keeping up with other home and work responsibilities. Whether we’re conscious of it or not, our children are watching this process and taking notes every minute of the day.

An interesting thing about community is we search actively for ones we can meaningfully give to and which will give back in a special way. As part of this, the time spent with classmates and their families on weekends, summers, nights, holidays, birthdays and play dates organized just because “we just miss each other too much,” demonstrates that the community we give ourselves to is made up of friends who will be there for us for many years to come.

Humanly, there is a strong desire to be part of something larger than ourselves, like a community. We need this as individuals and couples, and we need this for our children very early on, even beginning with the preschool years. All this is to say, it takes a community. For our precious little ones to benefit most from preschool, it takes a skilled and caring director and teachers; a group of loving parents willing to work hard and contribute time, talent and treasure; and it takes staff, parents and children alike embracing the opportunity to build and nurture lifetime relationships. The value of our experiences in the present is only enhanced by the capacity to share and make them sustainable, and a community makes this possible.

Joe Martin is president of the Board of Directors of the Woodside Parents’ Nursery School. He has two boys, ages two and four, and is also a financial advisor for Golub Group, LLC.

Is Conflict Always Bad?

By Nancy Rahimi

If you spend any time around young children, you are
bound to see plenty of disagreements. Conflict may
be irritating, but in and of itself, is not bad. It is healthy.
If multiple people are sharing the same space, and they
are each doing what they believe is right, there will be


Conflict between children is actually a good thing. It is a
very powerful learning tool. It helps children to develop
thinking skills, and to gain a sense of understanding of
their world. Through conflicts they learn about cause and
effect, develop perspective-taking abilities, and practice
emotional modulation. Experiencing negative emotions
(anger, sadness, frustration, disappointment, fear, etc.) is
a positive and necessary part of development. Learning to
recognize and manage emotions in a productive manner is
an important task of childhood.

Often a child’s first instinct is to act out physically, but
with coaching and role modeling, they can soon master
a variety of approaches. Children pick up many skills
by observing the adults around them. When you resolve
conflicts in calm, peaceful ways, your children watch and
learn. When you appreciate the differences in others and
verbalize varying perspectives, you help them to see that
there are many different ideas in the world. When you
give them attention for making pro-social choices, you
motivate them to try that approach another time. When
you offer them choices, they learn that life holds options.
And when you stay calm in conflict, they gather strength
from your presence and are better able to apply their
developing skills.

During conflict, children learn to clarify their ideas,
communicate more clearly, and identify their values.
Disagreements help children discover who they are
compatible with, who they admire, and whose company
they might enjoy. Through conflict, children also
discover that there may be more than one answer to any
single question. Practice with problem-solving prepares
children to look for solutions, consider options, and
navigate the ever-changing, ever-challenging world they
live in. Learning to deal with confrontational situations
as children makes it possible to deal with more difficult
situations as they age. This type of experiential education
makes it possible for children to learn why “my way or the
highway” just doesn’t work as an effective problem-solving

While your first instinct may be to want to jump in and
stop a conflict from occurring, next time you sense a
nonviolent argument brewing, you may shout a silent
hurrah that a vibrant educational moment is occurring.
In the following books, you will find more information on
conflict resolution and facilitating problem solving.

  • Pick up your socks… and other skills growing children need.
    A practical guide to raising responsible children
    by Elizabeth Crary
  • I want it my way. Problem solving techniques with children 2 to 8 by Sue Dimwiddie
  • Emotional Intelligence. Why can it matter more than IQ by Daniel Goleman

Nancy Rahimi is a mother of two, family coach, parent educator and Director of Carlmont Parents Nursery School in Belmont.

Relationship-Based Inclusion: a Social-Emotional Focus to Preschool Curriculum

By Andi Dierolf

My personal journey has woven together a passion for toddlers, an extensive background in Therapeutic Recreation and a strong play-based philosophy that thrives in Parent Cooperative Preschools. Having spent over 17 years in Parent Co-ops as a parent, director, teacher and parent educator, I am innately aware of the important role connections play in all of the learning that takes place in our preschools. As an educator, our first month of preschool is full of observations, reflections, engagements, problem solving and truly cooperating with families as we establish strong bonds with each child to enable them to reach their fullest potential. Continue reading Relationship-Based Inclusion: a Social-Emotional Focus to Preschool Curriculum

Is Your Child Ready for Kindergarten?

By: Renee Zimmerman

For many, the first day of kindergarten means sending your little one off into their next big journey, the world of a formal education. But for those with children of preschool age, particularly those whose children are in their final year before kindergarten, there can be some questions or apprehensions regarding their child’s school readiness.

In 2010 the Silicon Valley Community Foundation and First Five San Mateo County collaborated on an excellent publication titled “Is Your Child Ready for Kindergarten?” Continue reading Is Your Child Ready for Kindergarten?

On His Own Terms: Celebrating a child’s individuality amongst his or her peers

By Sheila Brar

My son’s first year of preschool was filled with changes for him and me. We both learned a lot, but the greatest lesson for me was rather unexpected. Up until almost age three, he had been taken care of in our home, so both of us had a transition to make. While researching potential schools, I was drawn to parent participation so that we could both ease into the change. One of the best outcomes of working in my son’s school was the ability to see how he reacted to his new environment and interacted with his peers. Continue reading On His Own Terms: Celebrating a child’s individuality amongst his or her peers