Activities for Parents and Children

An interview with Trish Kuffner

The Preschooler's Busy Book is the first book you wrote. How did you come up with the idea? I began writing this book during one of the worst winters of my life! Within three years I had gone from working full-time at a career I loved, to being a full-time, stay-at-home mom with three children under three years of age. The fall rains began on the last day of October that year, and they went on for three months straight. I thought I would lose my mind. Day after day of changing diapers, wiping noses, making meals no one would eat, doing mountains of laundry, chasing a toddler, nursing a fussy infant, and trying to entertain (and enjoy) a moody preschooler. Looking back, I don't know how I made it through.

During this time I knew there must be ways I could keep my preschooler busy and happy without having to devote all my time to her, which of course was impossible. I looked for ideas that would not only challenge and entertain her, but that were manageable for me as a busy, stressed-out mom. I wanted ideas for little projects we could work on together, but I also wanted things she could do on her own while I was busy elsewhere. Since we were living on one income, I also needed activities that made use of basic items we already had around the house.

I started to reorganize our home to better meet the changing needs of our family. I began collecting and saving all kinds of interesting things we could use in our activities. I became much more organized and tried to plan for special things we could do together. Most importantly, I learned to relax and enjoy my children, and their small and simple pleasures. Talking with other parents also helped me realize that I wasn't alone, that the frustration and even boredom I would feel some days was fairly common among stay-at-home parents of young children.

While I certainly don't think of myself as an expert at keeping children busy and happy, my experiences at home, all day, every day, with three very young children, taught me much about what works and what doesn't. The games, activities, and crafts that were most helpful to me during this difficult stage of mothering are the basis for The Preschooler's Busy Book.

What do you look for when deciding what activities to include in your books? It's no secret that young children have a boundless supply of energy and a relatively short attention span. And we all know that kids need stimulating activities to help them develop. But this doesn't mean that a parent or caregiver should spend all day, every day, entertaining their child with planned activities. It's okay to expect your child to play on his own from time to time. In fact, it's healthy and beneficial for young children to have lots of time to be creative and use their imagination, rather than have the hours of every day filled for them.

With this in mind, I chose activities that will stimulate children in a variety of areas and help foster their physical, mental, social, and emotional development. But what makes my books different from other activity books for children is that if an idea is great for a child but extremely complex or awkward for a parent or caregiver to implement, you won't find it in one of my books. No matter how great a project, game, or activity is in terms of the development of the child, the first question I ask is, "Is this really practical for the parent? Would a mom with a toddler and a baby and other tasks to attend to realistically want to or be able to make this craft or play this game?" Activities that require lots of special materials, need time-consuming preparation and cleanup, or require extensive parent participation or supervision usually don't make it into my books. I like to think of my books first and foremost as survival manuals for parents, rather than activity books for children!

You now have five children between the ages of 12 and 1, and none of your children has ever attended preschool or school. Do you think homeschooling has helped you in writing these books? Homeschooling is a choice my husband and I made for our family when our first child was just a baby. We believe that homeschooling gives our children the best advantage in terms of their social, emotional, spiritual, and intellectual development. But homeschooling isn't a piece of cake. It takes an enormous amount of dedication on the part of the "teacher" (usually the mother), it takes financial sacrifice, it takes time, and it takes loads of patience, something homeschoolers usually develop as they go along.

I think our early decision to homeschool helped me handle the preschool years differently than parents whose children will be going to school. I never had the idea that my children's days of being at home with me were temporary, something that would end when they began kindergarten or first grade. Being around my children almost all the time was something that I accepted as an on-going state of affairs. It meant that I knew that when it was time for my daughter to read, I would be responsible for helping her learn. It meant that the teachable moments I had each day with my children, even before they were school-age, were not something to be passed up because someone else would cover that later. It was extremely important to me to lay a good foundation in the preschool years, because I knew I wouldn't be sending them off to school where they would "really" learn. Home is school for our family, and it's very obvious to homeschooling parents that learning really does take place all the time, not just in a classroom.

So to answer your question, I believe that my experience as a homeschooler has definitely helped me in writing these books. Although I didn't feel this way when I first became I mother, I have learned over the years that parents are a child's first and best teacher. Yet I think this has been undermined in our culture: many parents believe that their child would be better off in the hands of "experts." For instance, parents of preschoolers often think their children have to go to preschool so they won't be "behind" other children when they begin kindergarten or first grade. But the activities in many preschools and day-care centers often imitate what can naturally occur in the home on a day-to-day basis: talking, singing, reading, exploring, having a snack, playing outdoors, playing with friends or siblings, and so on. Parents instinctively stimulate their children to learn, whether it's by playing peek-a-boo with a baby, hide-and-seek with a toddler, or play-dough with a preschooler.

I think parents who feel they can't offer their child enough stimulation lack only confidence and experience, certainly not ability. I hope my books help parents realize that children are learning all the time, and that providing children with a stimulating environment at home does not require special training or equipment. Parents can raise happy, healthy children by providing them with daily activities that are simple and fun, by placing more importance on their child's happiness and learning than on the appearance of their home, and by talking to their child on a level he understands. Parents who do this are well on their way to raising confident, capable children who will be well prepared for kindergarten and the world beyond.

A parent who reads your books or hears you speak may say, "Wow! I only have two children and I can hardly cope! How does she care for five children, homeschool, plan activities, and still find the time to write books?" I do hear that comment a lot when I meet young parents who have read my books or have heard me speak. Encouraging these young parents is the best part of my job!

I learned a long time ago that comparing yourself to others is a recipe for discontent and frustration. I also learned that when I compare myself to others, often I'm comparing one of my weak areas to one of their strong ones. For example, every spring I feel guilty that I don't have tulips and daffodils bursting forth from our garden. All summer long I look at lush flowerbeds with envy. Obviously I'm not a gardener! Would I like to be? Sure! But right now it's not a priority with me, and trying to squeeze it into my already too-busy schedule would surely create stress and frustration. And how about those grilled-cheese sandwich and canned soup dinners that are a regular part of my family's mealtime routine? Maybe it's not the most nutritious meal, but on days when it's a toss-up between a walk with my toddler and an hour in the kitchen, I'll usually choose the walk! He won't be a toddler for much longer, but I'll probably be cooking dinners until I die!

I don't think, however, that we should hide behind our weaknesses. We should examine the weak areas of our life and plan for some realistic growth in these areas. This doesn't mean we should try to change all our weaknesses all at once. It does mean that we should use the strengths of other mothers to effect growth and change in our own life. For example, a friend of mine is extremely organized when it comes to meals. She plans her meals way in advance, shops on schedule, uses coupons, and always has the necessary ingredients on hand to make whatever meal she has planned for any particular night. When she had her fourth child, her freezer was filled with enough dinners to last her family three months! What a mom! Now I know that's not me, but seeing her in action has encouraged me to plan just three or four days worth of meals at a time.

Another thing I like to share with readers is that I'm real, my kids are real, and certainly my house is real. This means that sometimes I yell at my kids! It means that my kids fight with each. And it means that on any given day you won't find my house looking like a show home. Sometimes I resent homeschooling because I seem to have no time to myself, sometimes I resent having a writing schedule to stick to because I'd rather read the latest best-seller than write, and sometimes I flirt briefly with the idea of jumping in the van, driving away, and leaving my family behind! But the reality is that when things are bad, they usually get better. If I'm having a bad day, my sister's probably had a worse one. If I haven't had enough sleep the night before, my neighbor with the new baby probably got even less than I did.

When I encourage people to be real with each other, I'm not saying, "Let's slam our husbands and children and the drudgery of our day-to-day life!" I try to be fairly positive in all situations, but pretending that everything is just great all the time isn't realistic. The reality is that raising a family is a tough job. Every mother on the face of this earth feels anger and frustration at one time or another. Being encouraged by empathetic friends can make the difference between feeling "normal" and feeling like the worst mother on the planet.

Any tips for the parents who read your books? Please remember that all children develop at a different pace. Just as I've encouraged you not to compare yourself to others, it's not a good idea to compare your children to other children. If you pick up The Toddler's Busy Book and see an idea that you think your four-year-old might like, it certainly doesn't mean that he's developmentally behind schedule. These books are arranged into suggested age levels, but some ideas from the books will suit children in a fairly wide age-range.

I also would suggest that you not rely exclusively on books like mine when coming up with fun ideas for your children. Many ideas that work for others will not work for your child, or they may not work right now. Watch your child, see what types of things interest him, and go from there. Develop your own file or notebook of activities that interest your child. Some may be variations of existing activities, while others will be entirely new. Young children master skills through repetition, so if your child enjoys a particular activity, let him do it over and over and over again. On the other hand, if your child shows no interest in an activity, stop for a time and try it again in a week, month, or year.

In The Toddler's Busy Book I write the following: "Raising a child is a monumental task which brings countless rewards, most of which will be realized only after many years of hard work. But there are also many 'warm fuzzies' you receive daily as a parent: the first time your baby smiles at you, his first word, his first step, his warm hugs, and that irresistibly cute thing he did that you can't wait to tell Grandma and Grandpa about. As your child moves through the various stages of early childhood, from infant to toddler to preschooler, you will also see the changes that parenting is bringing about in you. You will stretch and grow as a person, you will learn new things (many of them about yourself), and you will develop more patience than you ever thought possible.

If you are parenting a preschooler and a toddler, or a toddler and an infant, or all three (or more) at the same time, the daily challenges you face are even greater. You may not be able to get out as much as you want, or do as many fun and interesting things one-on-one with each child as you'd like, but chances are, if you care enough to read a book such as this, you're already doing a great job. Treasure what you've been given, keep a positive outlook on life, and do the best job you can each day.

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