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How to Explore STEM Skills With Your Kid When It’s Not Your Strong Suit

I’m an artist and my husband is an English professor. Our four-year-old daughter is read to, she paints and dances, and she loves any opportunity to put on a show. But I recently started to get the nagging feeling that everything we exposed our child to leaned toward the arts and humanities. I excelled in those disciplines in school, but in some ways that made my academic career more difficult, not less: I was placed in programs that challenged me across the board, which meant feeling overwhelmed (and occasionally downright stupid) when it came to math and science.

So how can I ensure that my own child doesn’t shut down when she’s taught algebra and chemistry? And, equally importantly, how can I teach her skills that I have struggled with (and disliked) myself? The best long-term plan for both of us is to start now, by making the STEM disciplines as fun and engaging as any art project or game. It’s possible – even easy – to make that happen without spending a dollar (though you will lose a few dimes in the process; more on that later.)

Here’s what’s working in our house, no fancy robotics classes required (at least, not yet):

1 | Use the toys you already have as teaching tools

If you’re like us, you’ve got a few old books and toys collecting dust that could be put to better use. The bonus here is that our association with coloring books, stickers, and board games is already positive. To my daughter this is clearly not work, it’s play.

Coloring books often depict objects (or Sesame Street Muppets, or My Little Ponies) in pairs or groups – talking about how many apples and oranges there are may seem simple, but it’s an introduction to advanced mathematical concepts. Try assigning each object a different color (now’s their chance for fun with crayons) and adding up all the colors individually, then collectively.

A pack of dinosaur stickers can be grouped into carnivores, herbivores, and omnivores. Doc McStuffins stickers can be divided into mammals (Doc, Hallie, and Lambie), birds (the Professor), and miscellaneous make-believe (Stuffy and Chilly – I mean, what is a snowman really?). There’s a museum of natural history element to this, but it also introduces sets, one part of math I actually did enjoy.

Candy Land, Chutes and Ladders, even a deck of playing cards – if your child isn’t old enough to play board games without cheating, there are still countless ways to retrofit the games to their age group while introducing math concepts. Count how many pink squares there are. See how many turns it would take to get to the end of the board if you landed on every other space. If we combined all the diamonds on this card and all the hearts on that card, how many hearts and diamonds would we have all together?

2 | Be generous with your pocket change

Let your preschoolers have all of it (okay fine: you can keep the quarters for parking meters or laundry). It may not seem like much, but it adds up over time. Every few months, work with them to dump out their piggy banks and roll their coins. (Your bank will give you the paper rolls for free – no need to buy them at the drugstore.) Counting, sorting, and rolling the money will be especially interesting when they know it’s theirs.

Then, talk about plans for the money. This is a chance to help instill some values while you’re working out percentages. Do you believe in donating to charity, or to a religious organization? Do you think saving is more or less valuable than spending?

Here’s the tough part: let them decide what to do with their money. After all, you didn’t notice it was missing. Feeling autonomy and power over their finances will help them appreciate money – and ideally, the math skills they used to understand it.

3 | Pull out your tape measure

You’ve probably got one – check your sewing kit or toolbox. Extra points if it’s retractable, because how fun is that? Depending on their ages, your children may not be ready to do the measuring on their own, but working together you can measure and record all sorts of items in your house. (Pro tip: this is a good project to start when you want to hang up curtains or move furniture; your child becomes the free labor as well as the impetus to do some rearranging.) You can note the dimensions of the bedrooms in your house and compare that to your own heights. How much room do we take up?

This is one of those activities that can go on long after you head to the kitchen to make dinner –  my daughter is too little to understand the details, but she’ll “measure” and compare things til bedtime.

4 | Don’t forget about snack time

You can talk about the origins of each snack food – almonds grow on trees, grapes grow on vines, cheese comes from cows’ milk. You can slice fruit into pieces and watch as the pieces get smaller – how many will I have if I cut this half into half again? You can discuss how all types of fruit have seeds and show them the differences in size. Heck, why not plant one of those seeds in a little pot of dirt and put it on the windowsill? We’ve never successfully grown a watermelon in a mason jar but it’s not for lack of trying.

A kitchen garden is an excellent way to start to instill an understanding of the natural world, even if you live in a cold climate or a small space.

5 | Repurpose your recycling

Before I throw anything away, I always look at it twice – can I use this in a new way to delight my daughter? These days, I go beyond pure delight to try and include engineering and tech in my dumpster diving. Fear not: there is still room to include our beloved dolls, toys, and imaginative play.

Toilet paper and paper towel rolls make awesome tunnels and garages for matchbox cars. Give a few to your child to experiment with, and make one yourself that’s slightly more advanced. My goal invariably is to use a combination of gravity and 45-degree angles to make the cars go super fast. (I may be the kid in this relationship.)

Amazon boxes are ideal for building dollhouses. If you don’t have an online shopping habit, see if you’ve got a neighbor that might. These boxes almost inevitably get tossed without a second use, but they’re in great condition and can be cut, stacked, and taped in interesting ways to house anything from an Iron Man action figure to an American Girl doll. Your kids will feel they are working towards a goal (an all cardboard Barbie Dream House!), but it’s the process that gets their brains thinking about engineering in an exciting way.

6 | Go outside whenever you can.

A nature walk – whether on the beach, in your backyard, or in a city park – is an opportunity to learn about what sorts of objects fall from which sorts of trees, which birds molt the biggest feathers, and what species leaves behind the most detritus. (Hint: it’s probably us. Luckily, archaeology and anthropology count too.)

If the information is not coming naturally to you, enlist a science-y friend or relative (my sister-in-law is a biologist, thank goodness) or look to Google to help fill in the gaps when you get home.

7 | Invest in toys that allow them to build

If you are going to spend a little money, try to buy things they can use in lots of ways. TinkerToys, Legos, Lincoln Logs – the toys we grew up with (and in some cases, our parents and grandparents too) allowed for creativity while helping children experiment with engineering. I tend to lean towards the simple ones, because there are more opportunities for creative exploration.

Magnatiles can be arranged in almost infinite ways, for example, but a set of Mega Bloks that is meant to build a train wash for Thomas the Tank Engine – well, that’s pretty much all it can build.

Then again, if it’ll get your kid building: go for it. You can always expand out from there.

8 | Let them see you using STEM concepts in daily life

Remember that pocket change? The reason I have it is that I use cash for small purchases. It’s a habit that helps me teach my daughter about adding and subtracting. When we bake, we talk about why certain ingredients bubble, or why cakes rise in the oven. When we drive over a bridge, my husband and I talk to her about the engineering that went into it. And the car we’re in, or the train we’re on, or the airplane overhead – how does that thing move, anyway? And are there really computers inside?

One conversation leads to another, and if you’re willing to say, “I don’t know, but let me find out,” you’ll find you learn something too. Suddenly it’s evening, and your little ones are exhausted from all that brain-fun they’ve been having. An early bedtime for them means extra Netflix for you. Because hey, even scientists need downtime.

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Dear Jeff Bezos and all who have anything to do with Amazon Prime Day,

I just want to start by saying—I know you are trying to be helpful. I love you all for that. I honestly do. But, you are kind of making me feel a lot of pressure today. Like, in a good way, but also, in an anxious way.

Let me explain…

On any given day, as a mother to three children, I have a certain level of anxiety. While it's not constant, I do have my anxious moments. Why? Because there are various versions of the following: Me asking my two older daughters to get their shoes on what feels like 500 times as I am changing my 9-month-old's very, very, very messy diaper while I am trying to figure out what I can throw on to wear in about five seconds while I am repeating brush your teeth, brush your teeth in my head so I, in fact, don't forget to brush my teeth.

Not even to mention the mental load that weighs on my mind every single day. Remember to flip the laundry, fill out the school forms, cancel that appointment, reschedule this appointment, order more diapers, figure out what we're having for dinner, squeeze in a shower, lock the basement door so the baby can't get down the stairs, find better eczema cream for my middle daughter, get more sunscreen...the list goes on and on and on.

But then you Amazon Prime Day me and I'm having a lot of feelings about that.

Because you're reminding me of things I need to order, to think about, to be on top of more.

The little potty that's on sale reminds me that I need to step up my potty training game for my 2-year-old. That super cute dollhouse reminds me that I need to think about my daughter's first birthday in two months (WHAT!). That face mask reminds me that I need to remember to wash my face before bed because I forget waaaay more than I remember which is terrible.

But then I realize, these deals are going to save my mental load by fixing my life. Right?

Like, I never knew I needed an Instant Pot until you told me it was only $58. Now I am scouring Pinterest for meals I want to prep in my own. THIS POT IS THE TICKET TO GETTING MY LIFE IN ORDER.

Do we need more plates and cups for the kids? I mean really they only probably need about two plates and two cups each but YES. Yes I do need more cute kids kitchenware. THESE PLATES ARE THE TICKET TO BEING A GOOD MOM.

What would I do if I had five Echo Dots? I don't know, but let's find out because they're only $29! THESE DOTS ARE THE TICKET TO EFFICIENCY.

If I order a Vitamix at 30% off, I know I'll lose the baby weight. Think of all the smoothies I'll mix up! I mean, I just lost a pound even thinking about the smoothies that thing can whip up. THIS VITAMIX IS THE TICKET TO A SEXY BOD.

Buying this trendy, floral dress will step up my mom style significantly. THIS DRESS IS THE TICKET TO KEEPING MY COOL.

Okay, then after I add all the fixers to my cart, I realize… I have 99 things, but necessity ain't one.

I mean, I have everything from waterproof band-aids to bras to dresses for myself and my kids to an alarm clock and books. I basically feel like Oprah—You get an Audible subscription! You get an Audible subscription!—but instead of these products magically being paid for by Queen O herself, the money is coming from my bank account, which is a lot less fun of a game, TBH.

And if I am being honest, I don't need much help with my order-things-from-Amazon-and-pretend-it's-being-paid-for-with-Monopoly-money game as I am quite often coming home to an Amazon package wondering what it could be, opening it with the enthusiasm of a kid on Christmas morning—even though I am the exact person who ordered whatever is inside of that Amazon box.

But today, on Amazon Prime Day, you tempt me with all the deals. And yes, my anxiety, blood pressure and adrenaline rise. And yes, my bank account might temporarily decrease—BUT if we are being fair, with the savings I'm getting on things I would buy anyway, I am basically making our account increase overall. Right?

And while these things aren't going to make me skinnier, or cooler, or more put together—I'm okay with that. I am doing a pretty good job on my own. But some of them will actually help my life in a few different ways at a reasonable price, and I am grateful for that—for real.

Now, Bezos, please end this 404 error nonsense and let me purchase all the things!

Thank you for all the savings and excitement,

Mamas everywhere

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Usually when celebrities post swimsuit photos on Instagram they don't exactly look like your average beach-going mom, but former Bachelorette (and mom of two) Ali Fedotowsky posted a series of bikini photos on Monday that are both beautiful and relatable.

"This might be my most vulnerable post on Instagram ever," she wrote in the caption for the photos which show a postpartum belly that looks like a real postpartum belly.

"At the end of the day, I know it's important to be open and honest about my postpartum body in hopes that it helps even one person out there who is struggling with their own body image," Fedotowsky (who just gave birth to her second child in May) wrote.

In the first photo of the series she's wearing a sarong around her stomach, but in the second and third photos Fedotowsky reveals the kind of stomach many mamas sport: It's not perfectly taut, she's not showing off any abs, but it is definity beautiful.

"If you swipe to see the second photo in this post, you see that my body has changed. My skin around my stomach is very loose and stretched out, I'm 15lbs heavier than I used to be, and my cup size has grown quite significantly," Fedotowsky writes.

The photos are a sponsored post for Lilly and Lime Swimwear (a line made for women with larger busts) but that doesn't mean it wasn't brave. In fact, the fact that it's an ad makes it even more amazing because research shows that when advertising only shows us bodies that don't look like our own, women become "generally more dissatisfied with their body and appearance".

Ali Fedotowsky

On her blog Fedotowsky notes that a lot of comments on her previous Instagram posts have been followers remarking how slim she looks, or how much they wish they looked like she does postpartum. By dropping that sarong and showing her tummy Fedotowsky is showing other mothers that there is nothing wrong with their own.

"While I appreciate the positive comments, you guys are always so good to me, I keep trying to explain that I'm just good at picking out clothes that flatter my body and hide my tummy," she wrote on her blog.

"I bounced back pretty quickly after I gave birth to Molly. But things are different this time and I'm OK with that. I'm learning to love my body and embrace how it's changed. I hope I get back to my pre-pregnancy shape one day, but that may never happen. And if it doesn't, that's OK."

Ali Fedotowsky

It is okay, because our bodies are more than our swimsuit selfies. They the vessels that carry us through life and carry our children and provide a safe, warm place for those children feel love.

Loose skin is a beautiful thing.

Thanks for keeping it real, Ali.

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Amazon shoppers were anxiously awaiting the countdown to Amazon Prime Day, but when the clock struck one, er three, the website went down.

On Monday afternoon shoppers were trying to get their hands on the much-hyped Prime Day deals but instead of low prices, many users just saw 404 errors, continuously refreshing pages, or had issues keeping or adding items to their shopping carts.

CNBC reports shares of Amazon were down during the shopping glitch, and many shoppers took to Twitter and Instagram to discuss how all they could see on Amazon were the dogs who decorate the site's 404 pages.

As cute as the dogs are, shoppers are getting tired of seeing them, so hopefully Amazon gets things back up and running soon. Analysts had projected Amazon would rake in $3 billion dollars this Prime Day. Time will tell how much of that was lost during the great dog picture debacle of 2018.

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"Say you're sorry!"

"Go apologize and mean it."

"You don't sound like you're sorry to me."

"She won't want to be your friend anymore if you don't apologize right now."

Sound familiar? This is a hot topic for many parents. We want our kids to have good manners, to truly feel and show compassion for another, to want to apologize from a heartfelt and authentic place—yet when we tell them to say they're sorry, what are we really communicating?

I think:

  • I need you to apologize so I can feel better about what just happened...
  • This is how we fix problems...
  • I need you to do what I say ...
  • You need me to tell you how to feel and behave...
  • I'm in control...(bigger and stronger wins)
  • Integrity is secondary to apologies—what you do doesn't have to be aligned with how you feel or think... just do it anyway.

Whew. Maybe not the message we really want to give.

Yes, manners are important and apologies are necessary. But, encouraging the growth of this from within—a genuine desire to (re)connect and show compassion, being in our integrity—is essential for healthy relationships.

Think about it. How might you feel if, after being hurt deeply by a friend they brushed you off with a cursory, "I'm sorry" or after a tearful yelling match with your teen that left you feeling raw, your spouse said, "How could you lose it like that?! You need to go apologize to him!"

I'd venture to say you might feel more hurt, maybe misunderstood and alone, or even mad.

Often, situations our children are in that we catch ourselves telling them to apologize are defined by just the same kinds of feelings. Hurt whether they are the one doing the hurting or being hurt; frustrated and mad that their favorite toy was grabbed, a cool idea rejected, some other injustice experienced; misunderstood because their feelings and thoughts weren't respected, because the adult missed all that led up to the conflict, because they weren't listened to; alone because they are misunderstood, not listened to, hurt on the inside, feeling rejected; MAD because they really didn't like what their buddy did and their feelings overflowed.

Having your child say "I'm sorry" is going to do very little for a child to grow an understanding of how they feel, why they feel, what they can do with all these feelings—all precursors to compassion.

The words I'm sorry" are more often about our need, not our child's. So what can you do to grow the genuine, integrity based, heartfelt ability to apologize?

1. Role model, always

Be genuine with your own apologies. Voice compassion for your child, others, and their situation.

2. Name and affirm feelings of all parties involved.

Just think, if your spouse, following the tearful yelling match with your teen, had said, "Honey that was really tough. Let me hold you for a minute while you pull yourself together," how might you now feel? How might that change the next step you took? I bet you'd feel connected, understood, cared for, and in a better position to now re-connect with your son and apologize for losing it. And it would have come from a genuine place within you.

3. Give choices or ideas.

"What can you do to help him feel better?"

"When you are ready to let her know you feel sorry, she'll appreciate it."

"Can you use your words or would you like to show her you feel sorry?"

Words, smiles, pats, sharing a toy, playing next to—these are all authentic ways kids can show they are sorry.

4. Notice what your child chooses or does on their own to express their apology and their feelings and name it.

"Thank you for offering your special stuffed guy to your friend. You wanted to help him feel better. What a nice thing to do to let him know you felt sorry."

And now you are helping your child learn a bit more about what healthy, caring relationships look like. Genuine apologies are on their way. It takes time to grow a child who can tap into their inner selves and respond with compassion and honesty in a difficult situation. Time, patience, and gentle guidance... trust this. "I'm sorry" will follow... and be truly meant.

Relationship building all around.

Originally published on Denali Parent Coaching.

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