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When I moved to Denver, the third thing I noticed after the sunshine and the walkable brunch spot was the middle school obsession.


The Vermont town that I left had a single K-8 school. I didn’t understand the freedom of this singular choice until I left it.

Like many cities, Denver has a system of school choice that includes magnet schools for science and the arts, charter schools for Mandarin immersion, and outdoor learning. There are also many neighborhood schools, but they’re not restricted to neighborhood kids. You can “choice in” amongst the 185 public schools in Denver.

The aim is wonderful: breaking up neighborhood clusters that almost always track on a socio-economic basis, and encouraging kids to explore their strengths.

The side effects, however, are maddening.

Entering 4th and 2nd grade as brand new students my sons were worried about lunch money and whether their non-airconditioned classrooms would be tolerable. The talk on the playground, however, was about 6th grade. Oliver was trying to find his locker while his classmates were trying to find their vocation.

Worse for me was how it ruined my social life.

Every single cocktail party is filled with middle school talk. This is not chit chat. This is serious business. Which will be your choices 1-5? How is the arts school at math? The Science School at writing? The Spanish school at English?

We live 300 feet from Hill, an undifferentiated middle school. It ranks 6/10 on some national scale that measures only test scores. Unlike the stratified elementary schools, this middle school is so unpopular with the neighborhood kids that it actually features diversity. When I try to cut the endless middle school talk short by telling the cluster of parents that we’re sending Oliver to Hill, I’m met by an odd combination of expressions. Some border on aghast. Oliver is a strong student, and the idea that we won’t maximize his education seems outlandish.

Others are relieved. They not-so-secretly want the madness to end. For parents to embrace the local school, skip the commute, and the concept that an 11-year-old is ready to specialize.

And what about the kids?

From what I can glean very few of them get to choose for themselves.

When I ask Oliver which school he’s interested in, he lists the Denver School of the Arts first. This is my sweet, tone deaf, so uncoordinated he falls off stools simply because of the motion of the earth boy. One who would happily put himself through the DSA portfolio application process with tracing paper Pokemon and song and dance about Minecraft blocks.

I want him to choose for himself. As long as it’s the school across the street. I point at it from my window. “Have you thought of Hill?” I ask. “Sure, he answers. I think I should go to Hill. It is right there.” He nods at my outstretched finger. I want to talk to him about diversity and the honors program, about their equal emphasis on literacy and the arts, about the Science Technology and Math program that will offer Robotics in seventh grade. I almost launch into a conversation about the limited scope of the scoring for its six out of ten rating. But he is content, back to his book. So I leave it.

The night of that conclusive 2-minute conversation I head out to another cocktail party. This one is themed La Dolce Vita and has Italian cocktails and a black and white screening of the vintage movie. I arrive in shorts and a bright orange shirt, looking plucked from the Florida coast. The other women are in slinky black dresses and high heels. They cluster around the antipasto.

When I get close enough to grab some cheese I hear the talk. “This one is going to that school, we thought about this other school, but some other kid didn’t like it.” “This fourth school is 45 minutes away without traffic, but it’s supposed to have the best blah blah blah.” On it went. I caught the eye of a mother tall in her heels. She has a 2nd grader and a high school student. I rolled my eyes as I made me a way to her.

“What is it about middle school?” I ask.

“I know,” she replies. “I’m so glad not to have to think about that right now.”

“It’s a rotten time anyway. I feel like they just need to muddle through,” I add, remembering my middle school welcome assembly where the principal told us we were about to spend three years in purgatory.

I leave to fill my wine, and she makes her way back to the group.

“Where” I hear her ask “ are you sending Jude to middle school?”

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Unstructured play is play without predetermined rules of the game. There are no organized teams, uniforms, coaches or trainers. It is spontaneous, often made-up on the spot, and changeable as the day goes on. It is the kind of play you see when puppies chase each other around a yard in endless circles or a group of kids play for hours in a fort they created out of old packing boxes.

Unstructured play is fun—no question about it—but research also tells us that it is critically important for the development of children's bodies and brains.

One of the best ways to encourage unstructured play in young children is by providing open-ended toys, or toys that can be used multiple ways. People Toy Company knows all about that. Since 1977, they've created toys and products designed to naturally encourage developmental milestones—but to kids, it all just feels like play.

Here are five reasons why unstructured play is crucial for your children—

1. It changes brain structure in important ways

In a recent interview on NPR's Morning Edition, Sergio Pellis, Ph.D., an expert on the neuroscience of play noted that play actually changes the structure of the developing brain in important ways, strengthening the connections of the neurons (nerve cells) in the prefrontal cortex, the area of the brain considered to be the executive control center responsible for solving problems, making plans and regulating emotions.

Because unstructured play involves trying out different strategies without particular goals or serious consequences, children and other animals get to practice different activities during play and see what happens. When Dr. Pellis compared rats who played as pups with rats that did not, he found that although the play-deprived rats could perform the same actions, the play-experienced rats were able to react to their circumstances in a more flexible, fluid and swift fashion.

Their brains seemed more "plastic" and better able to rewire as they encountered new experiences.

Hod Lipson, a computer scientist at Cornell sums it up by saying the gift of play is that it teaches us how to deal with the unexpected—a critically important skill in today's uncertain world.

2. Play activates the entire neocortex

We now know that gene expression (whether a gene is active or not) is affected by many different things in our lives, including our environment and the activities we participate in. Jaak Panksepp, Ph.D., a Professor at the University of Washington studied play in rats earning him the nickname of the "rat tickler."

He found that even a half hour of play affected the activity of many different genes and activated the outer part of the rats' brains known as the neocortex, the area of the brain used in higher functions such as thinking, language and spatial reasoning. We don't know for sure that this happens in humans, but some researchers believe that it probably does.

3. It teaches children to have positive interaction with others

It used to be thought that animal play was simply practice so that they could become more effective hunters. However, Dr. Panksepp's study of play in rats led him to the conclusion that play served an entirely different function: teaching young animals how to interact with others in positive ways. He believed that play helps build pro-social brains.

4. Children who play are often better students

The social skills acquired through play may help children become better students. Research has found that the best predictor of academic performance in the eighth grade was a child's social skills in the third grade. Dr. Pellis notes that "countries where they actually have more recess tend to have higher academic performance than countries where recess is less."

5. Unstructured play gets kids moving

We all worry that our kids are getting too little physical activity as they spend large chunks of their time glued to their electronic devices with only their thumbs getting any exercise. Unstructured play, whether running around in the yard, climbing trees or playing on commercial play structures in schools or public parks, means moving the whole body around.

Physical activity helps children maintain a healthy weight and combats the development of Type 2 diabetes—a condition all too common in American children—by increasing the body's sensitivity to the hormone insulin.

It is tempting in today's busy world for parents and kids to fill every minute of their day with structured activities—ranging from Spanish classes before school to soccer and basketball practice after and a full range of special classes and camps on the weekends and summer vacation. We don't remember to carve out time for unstructured play, time for kids to get together with absolutely nothing planned and no particular goals in mind except having fun.

The growing body of research on the benefits of unstructured play suggests that perhaps we should rethink our priorities.

Not sure where to get started? Here are four People Toy Company products that encourage hours of unstructured play.

1. People Blocks Zoo Animals

These colorful, magnetic building blocks are perfect for encouraging unstructured play in children one year and beyond. The small pieces fit easily in the hands of smaller children, and older children will love creating their own shapes and designs with the magnetic pieces.

People Blocks Zoo Animals 17 Piece Set, People Toy Company, $34.99

BUY


This article was sponsored by People Toy Company. Thank you for supporting the brands that support Motherly and mamas.

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So many parents wish there was a way we could add more hours to the day. Unfortunately, we're stuck with just 24 of them, but we can try to make the most of the time we've got. One way more and more working mamas are maximizing the time we do have is by cutting out the commute and working from home.

It can add an hour or two back to your day, and (depending on your hours and circumstances) it can even make childcare arrangements easier. And with more big companies offering legit remote opportunities, it's easier than ever for parents to find these opportunities. As Motherly recently reported, Amazon is on a bit of a remote hiring spree ahead of the holiday season, and it's not the only one.

Williams-Sonoma is currently seeking Seasonal Customer Service Associates to work from home. It is looking for remote workers in Cincinnati, Cleveland, Phoenix, Reno, Tulsa, and near Raleigh, Columbus, Braselton, and Oklahoma City.

These work-from-home positions are part of Williams-Sonoma's plan to hire about 3,500 associates for its Customer Care Centers. The company says a "significant portion of positions" for the Customer Care Centers will be work-from-home. They're looking for remote workers who live no more than an hour and a half away from one of the Customer Care Centers as "on occasion our Work From Home associates must come to the Care Center for meetings and training with advanced notice," the company notes in the job postings.


The positions are very similar to what Amazon is looking for: Basically customer service reps who can take inbound calls to help shoppers with orders, returns and issues with finding products or deliveries of products. Williams-Sonoma is looking for people who can work 30 - 50 hours per week, and the pay is listed at $12 per hour.

Another perk is a 40% discount on most merchandise, which great because the Williams-Sonoma umbrella includes brands like Pottery Barn and West Elm as well.

Sounds like this could be a great gig for a mama with customer service skills and a high-speed internet connection.

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In the moments after we give birth, we desperately want to hear our baby cry. In the middle of the night a few months later it's no longer exactly music to our ears, but those cries aren't just telling us that baby needs a night feeding: They're also giving us a hint at what our children may sound like as kindergarteners, and adults.

New research published in the journal Biology Letters suggests the pitch of a 4-month-old's cry predicts the pitch they'll use to ask for more cookies at age five and maybe even later on as adults.

The study saw 2 to 5-month olds recorded while crying. Five years later, the researchers hit record again and chatted with the now speaking children. Their findings, combined with previous work on the subject, suggest it's possible to figure out what a baby's voice will sound like later in life, and that the pitch of our adult voices may be traceable back to the time we spend in utero. Further studies are needed, but scientists are very interested in how factors before birth can impact decades later.

"In utero, you have a lot of different things that can alter and impact your life — not only as a baby, but also at an adult stage," one of the authors of the study, Nicolas Mathevon, told the New York Times.

The New York Times also spoke with Carolyn Hodges, an assistant professor of anthropology at Boston University who was not involved in the study. According to Hodges, while voice pitch may not seem like a big deal, it impacts how we perceive people in very real ways.

Voice pitch is a factor in how attractive we think people are, how trustworthy. But why we find certain pitches more or less appealing isn't known. "There aren't many studies that address these questions, so that makes this research especially intriguing," Hodges said, adding that it "suggests that individual differences in voice pitch may have their origins very, very early in development."

So the pitch of that midnight cry may have been determined months ago, and it may determine part of your child's future, too. There are still so many things we don't know, but as parents we do know one thing: Our babies cries (as much as we don't want to hear them all the time) really are something special.

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Plenty of modern motherhood paraphernalia was made to be seen—think breastfeeding pillows that seamlessly blend into living room decor or diaper bags that look like stylish purses. The breast pump though, usually isn't on that list.

It's traditionally been used in the privacy of our homes and hotel rooms in the best case scenarios, and in storage closets and restrooms in the worst circumstances. For a product that is very often used by mothers because they need to be in public spaces (like work and school), the breast pump lives a very private life.

Thankfully, some high profile moms are changing that by posting their pump pics on Instagram. These influential mamas aren't gonna hide while they pump, and may change the way the world (and product designers) see this necessary accessory.

1. Gail Simmons 

Top Chef's Gail Simmons looked amazing on the red carpet at the 2018 Emmys, but a few days after the award show the cookbook author, television host and new mama gave the world a sneak peek into her backstage experience. It wasn't all glam for Gail, who brought her pump and hands-free bra along on the big night.

We're thankful to these women for showing that breast pumps belong in public and in our Instagram feeds.

[Update, September 21, 2018: This post was originally published on May 31, 2018, but has been updated to include a recent Instagram post by Gail Simmons.]

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I was feeling off the other day. Something wasn't right, and I couldn't seem to put my finger on it or kick it for that matter. As the day progressed, it didn't get much better. It was a typical day for us, with the usual 2-year-old meltdowns and chaos that happens when you have two babies close in age.

Nothing was out of the norm, but I just wasn't feeling completely like myself. And right after getting my daughters to bed, when I was alone with my thoughts, the feelings intensified. Through the silence, I heard a soft and familiar voice criticizing my mothering, telling me "You don't do anything right." "You are failing your kids."

My anxiety was attacking me, knowing I am weakest on my own. But I knew what I needed to do. So I took out my phone and dialed, listening to the ringing on the other end.

Waiting for the person who always comforts me.

Who always makes everything better.

Who has the magic words when it comes to calming my soul.

"Hi." She answered the phone.

"Hi Mom," I said, as my voice cracked. I can mask my pain for everyone—but her.

"Everything is going to be okay," she reassured me from over the phone as I broke down to her. I hung up feeling so much better. Because—truly—there is nothing in this entire world like a mother's reassurance. I know that not everyone has this kind of relationship with her mother. That, I am indeed one of the lucky ones—but we can all hope to become this for our own children.

And you, mama, contract that magic right when you give birth.

This magic doesn't make you perfect and all-knowing. No, you don't have all the answers. No one has that. You just need to be you—your sweet baby's mama. That title comes with that last push or lift out of the womb. It could also come if your baby is handed over through adoption or surrogacy.

It doesn't matter the means, the magic comes the second your baby is placed into your arms. It comes with a force so strong it leaves a mark on your heart. It transforms you into a mother. You are enough just by being that person who opens her arms and accepts this baby as yours forever.

Your soft-skinned newborn is placed on your chest, shrieking, tears dripping down her cheeks and onto her pout. The little muscles in her chin trembling with such force, her face is on the verge of turning bright red. Then you cuddle her close and feed her. "Everything is going to be okay." She finds peace in the warmth of your body, her skin on your skin.

There is nothing like a mother's reassurance.

When your baby becomes a toddler, and he falls and gets his first scrape, screaming, because it's a new kind of painful sensation—an open wound. "Everything is going to be okay," you say to slow his tears and scoop him up into your arms. You clean that scratch out and apply Neosporin.

You put a Band-Aid on, sealed with a kiss, and wipe away his tears. You will always be there to pick him up when he falls—literally, now...and figuratively, in the future when he is grown.

There is nothing like a mother's reassurance.

When she goes to her first day of preschool, and you have to separate from each other. She cries as you hold your tears back, as you assure her, "Everything is going to be okay. Mommy always comes back." And of course, you do, and you hold onto those words yourself—repeating them to stay strong.

Because when you are together, everything is right again. You let her go because it's the right thing to do.

There is nothing like a mother's reassurance.

When he gets his heart broken for the first time, he will feel like the only person that truly knew him has abandoned him. He'll feel as if he will never find that again. He may not have the proper coping mechanisms yet to deal with that level of pain.

He comes to you in tears over losing the love of his life. You comfort him and assure him "Everything is going to be okay." Because you know this as fact because he is the love of your life. And, one day, if he has a child—he will feel the same way.

There is nothing like a mother's reassurance.

When life kicks her in the rear-end. When she is struggling to find her place in this wild world, feeling so alone. When she needs support. She doesn't ask you directly, but your mom intuition whispers to you, pulling on that mark on your heart, and so—you make the call.

"Everything is going to be okay," you say into the phone. The sky won't fall and Chicken Little will not witness the world ending because she can't figure it all out right this second. Finding her place in this world will take time, but it will happen. Right now, and for always, you are her safe place, her landing pad.

One day our babies may have babies of their own. When they are sad they will say, "Everything is going to be okay."

They will know that sometimes all our children need is reassurance from us—their safe place. Their soul-soother. Their heart.

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