Why I Dislike Guardian-Accompanied Playgroups

When we first moved to Hong Kong, it was a rude-awakening to discover that daycares are not popular. Many working parents have grandparents or live-in nannies (they’re extremely affordable in Asia) for childcare, so guardian-accompanied playgroups are more prevalent for non-school aged children. They were a regressive step for the Dumpling because she has attended a drop-off since she was six months old back in the U.S. As we waited for a spot to open at an unaccompanied program, however, accompanied playgroups were our only immediate options at the time.

The one we joined was typical. For two hours, one to three days a week, parents or caregivers bond with their toddlers through engaging, educational activities, such as circle time, singing, dancing, arts and crafts, and sensory trays, led by an experienced teacher. The children will have opportunities to develop social skills, confidence, and independence—soft skills needed for an easier transition into drop-off classes.  

Sounds promising, right?

I hated the fact that I needed to be there—not because I did not want to spend time with my daughter, but because I did not want to be her security blanket. This particular program allowed kids to join and unjoin any time, so the lack of continuity and familiarity made friendships difficult to form. The Dumpling naturally gravitated toward me instead of exploring on her own because I was the easier option.

The teacher functioned more as an activity prompter than a leader—she would not intervene when a child was disruptive, acted inappropriately, or did not participate. Adults were solely responsible for their children, which was problematic as each toddler saw his guardian as the main authority figure instead of the teacher.

With a dozen adult-child pairs in class, it seemed like everyone operated under different “playground rules”. When the Dumpling snatched a toy from another child during one session, that child’s nanny lunged and aggressively snatched it back from the Dumpling before I could react. I was shocked that a grown-up behaved this way. I guessed she believed in “an eye for an eye”.

The differences in everyone’s parental values and styles were apparent. During an arts and crafts activity, the teacher presented a cherry blossom painting created by dotting pink paint on a tree silhouette—an example of what the class was to replicate. I did a demo for the Dumpling on our sheet. She dotted maybe three or four flowers before she smeared the paint around with her hands instead. I shrugged and looked around to see what other pairs were doing. Most adults were taking their kids’ fingers and dotting for them; the rest were completing most (if not all) of the activity on behalf of the children, who either lost interest or did not want to touch paint.

When the paintings were placed on the table to dry, I noticed that all of them fell within the spectrum of the teacher’s sample…except for the Dumpling’s. The others depicted delicate, tranquil blossoms blooming, while my kid’s tree looked like a typhoon bulldozed its way through.

The Dumpling was so proud of her work, and I was proud of her. I was proud that her piece was different…that she was different. She was not afraid to explore, completed the painting on her own, and did not mind getting dirty along the way.

I often reflect back on this moment. In an age where “over-parenting” is normal, I was glad that I did not interfere. But did I overvalue her independence and creativity? Under different circumstances, these traits could be viewed as insubordination or arrogance.

Painting a cherry blossom was trivial in the greater scheme of things, but what if it metaphorically represented a different activity (say baking or playing a team sport), could the Dumpling’s “tree” be viewed as a failure?
Was the process that much more important than the result? Should I have encouraged her harder to follow instructions? Or guided her fingers (like what some adults did) instead of letting her go rogue? If she had refused to paint at all, would it have been acceptable to return home with nothing? If the stakes were higher, would I have completed the project for her (like what a few others did)?

The other adult probably judged me as I had judged them, so only time would tell whom made the right parental choices. We strive towards grooming our kids into happy, smart, successful, good people, but even our best intentions could produce a variable of unforeseen effects.

I left this playgroup after a few weeks and tried another one—it was just as chaotic and dysfunctional as the first. My biggest critiques with the accompanied programs are their continuous open enrollment and the mandatory presence of a guardian, which in combination hindered the development of soft skills they claim to foster. Luckily a spot opened up for the Dumpling at a drop-off class soon after. (Hallelujah!) In the end, she did not benefit much from attending accompanied playgroups, but at least I learned something about my parenting values.

Teach the Way They Learn

“If a child cannot learn from the way we teach, maybe we should teach the way they learn.” – Ignacio Estrada

Ever since the Dumpling was a newborn, I have dutifully incorporated reading as part of her nightly routine. On regular rotation were classics such as Goodnight Moon, Are You My Mother, The Runway Bunny, and nursery rhymes. Although her “meh” reaction was initially discouraging, online articles by child experts assured me that my efforts were not wasted. They seem to unanimously agree that reading to kids from an early age constitutes quality bonding time, promotes early literacy, develops their imagination, and brings an abundance of other benefits down the road.

As the Dumpling grew older, so did her interest in books…but not in the way I expected. While she was teething, they became her chewing toys. Then she went through a phase where she ripped off all the flaps from her flap books. Now she just loves flipping maniacally through the pages. On some evenings, she wouldn’t even sit through an entire story before wiggling away. I initially thought it was my choice of literature, but her behavior was the same whether we read her “favorite” story or a Toys“R”Us circular.

While the futility of our reading time didn’t escape me, it didn’t bother me either…until I actually tried teaching her something. It started when the Dumpling developed an interest in colors at around 19 months, so I picked out a few books to help her along. While nothing in our routine changed, my perception of it did. Instead of a leisurely past time, reading now had a purpose.

Information Overload

The reality was that the Dumpling’s primary interest laid in flipping, crumpling, or ripping pages; the content was secondary. Delving into my graphic design background, my guess was that there was just too much visually going on to hold her interest. As a result, she looked at everything—and therefore, nothing at once. For a toddler learning a new concept, a spread with seven to eight colors along with pictures, words, and numbers can be overwhelming. Even if an entire page was dedicated to one color, her attention was often fixated on familiar objects but not their attributes. For example, she would focus on the frog rather than the frog being green. This was understandable since her vocabulary up to this point consisted mostly of nouns and verbs; adjectives were new territory.

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Excerpts from the Dumpling’s books: there’s too much going on!

After a few attempts, I shifted away from books to experiment with a few activities designed to channel the Dumpling’s attention. I have always been a hands-on learner, so I built a color lesson around finger painting. I started by hiding all of the paint colors except for one and kept repeating that color over and over again. When the Dumpling started losing interest, I took the first color away and introduced a second. Again, I repeated the new color until I brought out the third and hid the second.

In our first painting session, she was exposed to a total of four colors: yellow, blue, red, and green. Once they were all introduced, I laid them out of reach and asked her to point to what she wanted as I named the chosen one aloud. Towards the end of the 30 minute activity (which as about 25 minutes longer than what I would have gotten out of reading), she was pretty much able to point correctly to a color when asked and verbally name blue and yellow.

In the next few weeks, we replicated this approach by playing with sets of identical objects that came in different colors, such as crayons, balls, pipe cleanerspom poms, and spoons. I was strict with having only one color of each available at the beginning. For example, if we were playing with pit balls, I had one red, one blue, one yellow, and one green out even though the set came with 100 balls. I didn’t want her to be distracted by the other 96 balls bouncing everywhere because our attention was on the colors, not the balls. Once I felt she developed a solid understanding of the initial four colors did I introduce additional ones.

Learn Through Play Activity Ideas

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  • Rolling balls: There’s something very calming about rolling balls down the stairs and watching them bounce. The Dumpling could spend 40 minutes doing this (she would have gone on longer, but I was tired picking them up), so it was an opportune time to talk about colors!

  • Fishing with pipe cleaners: I molded pipe cleaners into fishes, handed the Dumpling a magnet, and asked her to “fish” for different colors. (Tip: Find a magnet strong enough to pick up the pipe cleaner, but not so strong that it picks up multiple ones. Otherwise the game would be over very soon.)
  • Color sorting pom poms: After cleaning out plastic takeout sauce containers, I layered the bottom with colored construction paper and showed the Dumpling how to color sort. We started on easy mode with four colors and slowly added more.

YouTube also became an effective medium after the Dumpling started watching videos of an animated baby sliding into a ball pit. The character would do this repeatedly, except the balls were a different color each time.

Through simple and repetitive activities, the Dumpling learned to identify and say 10 colors before she turned two. As I was dressing her recently, she demanded to wear a blue outfit. When I was about to put a baby blue shirt over her, she stopped me and said “NO! Dark blue.” Apparently she can now differentiate between light and dark hues too.

I still read to my daughter on a regular basis in hopes that she would develop an interest in books one day. However, I also recognize that reading doesn’t always necessary equate to learning. While books are great resources, they’re only as useful as the amount of information a child can extract from of them. Just in case the Dumpling learns more effectively through other methods, I’m always ready to explore new activities as we learn together.

Best Party Favor For Under $1

Finding the right gift to use as a favor has always been one of my biggest party planning hurdles. It feels like I’m searching for a unicorn when I’m looking for something that meets ALL three of my following criteria:

  1. Practical: The gift should be useful, not something the kids play with once and toss into recycling.
  2. Fun for most ages: Since my guests range from babies to toddlers to young children, the gift should ideally be appealing to a wide demographic.
  3. Affordable: My goal is to keep each item under $3.

My strategy is to come up with a list of things that I use with the Dumpling on a regular basis, then filter out items that are too age specific, and try to purchase them in bulk for volume discounts.

For example, I gifted headbands and bow ties for the Dumpling’s first birthday last year. Both have re-use value, are available in sets, and can be used with children of all ages. (I use the Dumpling’s headband as a scrunchie …and I’m 32.)

Cookie Cutters Are Useful, Fun, and Cheap!

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I dropped a cookie cutter into a handmade gift bag labeled with the child’s name.

Cookie cutters made the cut for the Dumpling’s party favor this year because they knock all three criteria out of the park. I thought of the idea after an old set unexpectedly received a lot of mileage in our household recently. While prices range drastically depending on shapes and materials, I opted for a box of 24 stainless steel cutters for a whopping $8.50 on Amazon. (I didn’t purchase a replica of what I have since I didn’t need 100 cutters!) Because the package comes in an assortment, I labeled each gift bag with the child’s name and assigned a pattern for everyone. This ensured that the design is gender appropriate and siblings do no get the same thing.

The cost of each favor came out to $0.35 each!

My original set of 100+ cookie cutters.

Activities With Cookie Cutters

Teach ABCs, Shapes, Numbers, Etc.

I initially dug my cookies cutters out because the set contains plastic molds of all 26 letter that I wanted to use as alphabet “blocks” with the Dumpling. They served my purpose because 1) they look enough like toys to pique my toddler’s interest; 2) they are light and easy to grab; and 3) they are movable to form short, simple words.

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The Dumpling is starting to get into her ABCs.

Cut or sculpt food

I subsequently found myself using the other shapes to make meal time more interesting. They can be used to cut through bread, pancakes, cheese, sliced fruits, or anything soft.

Cut heart shaped sandwiches for a ladies’ tea party.

Make heart shaped pancakes.

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Mold rice into fun animal shapes.

Stamp and Stencil

The Dumpling used the shapes as stamps to create repeating pattern with finger paint.

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Simple shapes work well.

Ideas from Around the Web

Turn cookie cutters into ornaments

Hang them up as they are (thediydreamer.com)

Wrap the cookie cutters in baker’s twine (cutesycrafts.com)

Add washi tape for decorative effect (anightowlblog.com)

Add some decorative background with festive prints (itallstartedwithpaint.com)

Use cookie cutters to shape other materials

Shape pipe cleaners to create bubble wands (redtedart.com)

Shape pipe cleaners to grow crystals (onelittleproject.com)

Use cookie cutters as molds in other projects

Upcycle old crayons (onelittleproject.com)

 

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Splashes, Smudges, and Spills: The Dumpling is Now a [Self-] Published Artist 

When the Dumpling first started finger painting, I didn’t have high expectations after seeing that her primary techniques consisted of slapping, smearing, ripping, and crumpling paint and paper together. She proved to be a prolific artist and whatever survived the production process was whimsically lauded as “abstract art.” jigg and I proudly framed and shamelessly shared our daughter’s colorful messes with family, friends, co-workers, and anyone who was willing to admire them. They played along in our ruse by comparing her work to modern artists, asking for copies, reserving future pieces, and even offering commission.

Since everyone seemed to be on-board the “fake it until we make it” boat, I wanted to take the game to the next level: convert the Dumpling’s work into a book and enable her to claim the title of being a published artist. Besides, I have been looking for a good coffee table book lately.

After laying each painting out, I saw how much of the Dumpling’s personality embodied her work, from her obsession with a particular color (she went through a phase where she only wanted blue), to her impatience with dotting paint (she preferred pouring it), to her stubbornness to follow my instructions (hence the mess). The compositions also showed an amusing progression in her thought process. The amount of paint used was indicative of her interest level; white space showed trepidation while total color coverage signified her full embrace of the medium. In one instance, the Dumpling was looking for fresh space as every inch of her work area was used. Without missing a beat, she flipped over her existing piece of paper and continued on her newfound, blank canvas. Although unintentional, it produced an unique effect.

My DIY book binding project.

What started out as ordinary toddler art turned out looking like a legitimate portfolio. In hindsight, we never had to fake it. It just took my mommy goggles time to focus, some proper image cropping, and several hours of my labor (which mommy normally charges a pretty penny for) to bring out their fully glory.

To capture the spirit of her work, I titled her book, Splashes, Smudges, and Spills.

Click here to read Splashes, Smudges, and Spills

I already have plans to have the next edition of her book professionally printed in hardcover. Let me know if you want to get in the pre-order.

(I’m being serious!)

Painting with the Dumpling: Difference Between Modern Art and Smeared Crap

The Dumpling recently showed interest in learning colors, so I set up a series of activities to help explore her newfound curiosity. I have been waiting to paint with her for some time but have held off in fear that more of it would end up in her stomach than on paper.

The four ingredients used in the homemade finger paint recipe were flour, water, salt, and food coloring.

I set out to make my own edible finger paint because I found comfort in knowing that whatever the Dumpling could potentially put in her mouth was indeed familiar and non-toxic. I also purposely stayed away from any recipe that required sugar as an ingredient – just because the paint was edible didn’t mean I want to encourage the Dumpling to eat it!

The Dumpling at work.

I kicked off the art session by naming each of the four paint colors available and showed the Dumpling how to dab paint with her fingers onto a piece of card stock. At the beginning, her art seemed promising with bright splashes of color that channeled Pollock. To encourage dialogue, I offered her only one color each time and kept the other jars of paint out of her reach. This restraint forced her to ask or point to a different color she wanted to use.

The fine line between art and a colorful mess.

The Dumpling eventually got tired of dotting paint and started smearing globs of it on her work area, face, and arms. In the end, I had a very colorful child to clean and a painting the resembled smeared crap on canvas. I mean that in a quite literal sense because everything just turned brownish.

While the Dumpling learned about colors through this activity, I got a refresher on color theory and how brown is made, which apparently is all the colors mixed together based on empirical observation. I also discovered that timing is the difference maker between my daughter creating art versus something that looked like doo doo. The key was to switch to a fresh piece of paper before she had the opportunity to turn everything into a mess.

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Super Mario Party (top); Murky Water (middle); Waves Crashing on a Beach (bottom)

From the onset, I was excited to finally start my very own collection of bad kid’s art. When I framed her work, I was pleasantly surprised at how nice the finished products actually looked!

Even though I was careful about not letting the Dumpling eat paint, I’m now eager to see if she would have rainbow colored poop tomorrow.