Sunday, October 23, 2011

Art in the Orchard: Kid Friendly Art Experiences

"Big Bully Boys Rabbits" high fired terra cotta by Susan Halls

Being raised by a mother who is an artist and art educator, my sister and I had many opportunities to take in the art scene while growing up.  We were always included whether it be an art opening at my mother’s gallery, an outing to a museum, or sitting in our lawn chairs listening to live music at the bandstand in my hometown.  I think being included and exposed to the arts shaped my appreciation for them as an adult.  I want my kids to have the same awareness and hope they will appreciate the creativity of the community around them. 
"Zag" forged and fabricated steel
by Matt Evald Johnson
I’m always keeping an eye out for opportunities that are suitable for me to bring along my little ones.  When my Aunt told me about an orchard in western Massachusetts that had a sculpture trail I knew it was a great chance to take the boys on a road trip to visit my family and take in the local art scene.  Sixteen local and regional artists have their work on exhibit throughout the grounds at Park Hill Orchard in Easthampton, MA from Mid August through October.  The owners of the farm have been working to revitalize the land, planting and harvesting over 70 varieties of fruit using sustainable growing practices.  This exhibit is the first of what will become a biennial public art event where visitors can enjoy the beauty of both art and nature.  The works include a range of art media including metal, stone, glass, ceramics, and audio and a variety of genre from representational pieces to more abstract.  Everyone could find one piece that they liked best.  A few pieces were large free standing sculptures that towered over us.  A couple pieces were displayed in the fruit trees themselves.   One was at the center of a labyrinth made from raspberry bushes.

"Prarie Chicken" wrought iron
by Marty Klein
The setting was ideal for my guys who were able to run around, pausing to look at a sculpture when something caught their attention and then stomping in a mud puddle or feeding free range chickens that roamed the property.   We spent the afternoon bouncing from one sculpture to the next watching my boys chase each other around the open space in front of the scenic backdrop of Mount Tom where my father grew up hiking and playing when he was a kid.  We headed out for supper at the Clam Box, our lungs full of fresh air and our minds buzzing with thoughts about the artwork we’d seen.  We were satisfied with the experience the boys had that day and inspired to find more once we’d gone home.

Thursday, October 6, 2011

Reflecting on the Breast Milk Baby Doll Controversy

This summer I heard about a new doll that was causing an uproar, The Breast Milk Baby.  Now, I know that breastfeeding is a hot button topic.  This post is not meant to offend anyone.  I personally am pro breastfeeding, but I understand that it is a very personal decision for each mother based on many variables according to each individual’s situation.  Most of my point for writing this particular blog post is to consider how toys we provide for our children inform their playtime and how that will later inform their life choices. 
If you haven’t heard about or seen this doll, it is just another version of a baby doll that is electronically designed to simulate functions of a real baby, in this case breastfeeding.  The child wears a halter style top with flowers on it that have sensors in them that make the doll move its mouth and make sucking noises.  Some argue that the doll will make little girls grow up too fast or that children don’t need to learn how to breastfeed.    
Kids Intuitively Play Make-Believe
One thing that intrigued me was how little some people seem to know about how children play.  Much of a child’s play is pretending to be a grown up.  I don’t have to do any scientific research to know that.  They play dress up, putting on clothing modeled after adults and using props that help them role play.  They pretend to be firefighters, doctors, dog groomers, shop keepers, farmers, hairdressers and waiters at restaurants to name only a few.  They play “house”, by pretending to cook and clean and mow the lawn.   And they pretend to be parents by modeling their own parents.  We give children toys that are small versions of the real thing that they use as props while they pretend to be grownups.  That’s what they do.  This playtime is actually really important to their development.  I read about an experimental preschool program called Tools of the Mind.  In these classrooms the teacher would facilitate imaginary play scenarios that would encourage the children to extend the time they spent playing pretend.  Alix Spiegel did a piece in 2008 on NPR’s Morning Edition entitled “Old-Fashioned Play Builds Serious Skills”.

 It turns out that all that time spent playing make-believe actually helped children develop a critical cognitive skill called executive function. Executive function has a number of different elements, but a central one is the ability to self-regulate. Kids with good self-regulation are able to control their emotions and behavior, resist impulses, and exert self-control and discipline…self-regulation is incredibly important. Poor executive function is associated with high dropout rates, drug use and crime. In fact, good executive function is a better predictor of success in school than a child's IQ.”
Will they grow up too fast? Or will they grow up to be pro breastfeeding?
There are many dolls on the market that come with bottles.  Does anyone get on the morning news and disparage the toy companies for hoisting formula on the next generation or rushing children into adulthood too quickly?  I think it is an example of how our society views breastfeeding as taboo.   In our culture many feel embarrassed when a woman nurses her child in public.  It shows that our society is unaccustomed and unsupportive of one of the most natural acts of mothering.  I know as a new mother I considered pumping a bottle to take with me, not because I was uncomfortable nursing my child, but I didn’t want to make others around me uncomfortable.  I’m glad that I didn’t make that a regular practice.  What a lot of extra work for me and stress on my child who was used to nursing, and not used to bottle feeding.
What would change in the next generation if children were provided with playtime accessories that encouraged them to pretend to be nursing mothers?   Would the next generation of mothers feel more empowered to nurse their babies?  The children who are playing house today will be raising children of their own when they grow up and will be making these decisions.  I started wondering: what are we providing for them during playtime today that will help them make an informed choice in the future?
When my second child was born I knew that my first born would be very interested in all that went with caring for this little brother.  I was very open with him that his new little brother would eat milk from his mother’s breast just like he did when he was a baby.  I didn’t evade the issue I was just matter of fact about it and didn’t make it into a big deal, it was just life.  I have a newborn he eats only his Mama’s milk right now.  Wherever we go – if he gets hungry his Mama feeds him.  No big deal.  To clarify, I did care a bit that I don’t make people around me uncomfortable.  Not so much that I never left the house or only fed my baby breast milk from a bottle when in public.  But I did sew a nursing cover that strapped around my neck and gave me privacy while being courteous to those around me. 
Natural Parenting Baby Doll Accessory Set
available at
My son, like many big brothers and sisters, has a doll, (we call it “Junior” since when he received it the only name he could think of to name it was his own). When I bathed the new baby he bathed Junior.   When I rocked the new baby Junior was rocked.  When I went out with my baby I would often use a baby carrier.  A friend of mine had made her daughter a mini version of her carrier.  What a great idea!  I made one for my first born so he could carry Junior.  I used cloth diapers so I made Junior one and my son asked me to make two because if he wanted to pretend one was dirty he’d need a clean one to put on.  After seeing this breast milk baby doll on television and the controversy it generated I wondered: If I had a daughter wouldn’t it be nice to have a child sized nursing cover too.  As I’ve said in a previous blog post I’m not super enthusiastic about toys that do all the playing for the child, but playtime accessories that encourage children to play pretend and help launch their imaginations, that I can get excited about.