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 Mamas we love: Cara Zelas on teaching meditation to children


Mamas we love: Cara Zelas on teaching meditation to children

With everything we juggle in this working parent life, taking a few moments out of the day to attain some Zen never goes astray. But figuring out how to access real calm can be difficult even for us adults, let alone for the little ones we are hoping to guide along their path too. #MindrMama, educator and children’s author Cara Zelas has created a gorgeous new resource for teaching meditation to children, called ‘Brain Vacation: A Guide to Meditation.’ We caught up with Cara to hear about the process of writing her newest kids’ book, and her broader ‘Big World of Little Dude’ series for teaching kindness to children.

Meditation can be such an important outlet for all of us. What inspired you to bring this tool directly to the kiddos?

When creating the Big World of Little Dude book series and curriculum, I wanted to give children, parents and teachers practical tools to nurture social and emotional growth in a fun and engaging way. As a teacher or parent, you have strategies and approaches to guide your child to help them understand their emotions, how to process information and navigate the world around them. Mediation is a tool for your toolkit. It can support emotional regulation, and help your child find moments of internal peace and quiet.

What advice do you have for parents wanting to teach their children about meditation and other self-care tools?

Start in small increments, and make it fun and part of your daily routine.

Begin with getting to know your breath. You can use tools such as bubbles or pin wheels, since both require deep breaths, in and out. Ask your child to pick out their favorite teddy, lay on the bed or yoga mat, and place the teddy on their tummy. Watch the teddy rise and fall with each breath in and out. Can they make the teddy go higher by taking deeper breaths? As part of the bedtime ritual and routine, begin with 30 seconds and gradually increase the time, to close your eyes together, and just breathe. Placing hands on tummies can help with keeping still and provides direct input from the hands to feel the breath going in and out of your body.

Listening to a guided meditation can also be helpful. They can be found online for free, or you can listen to the Big World of Little Dude Sleep Meditation here!

My favorite self-care tool is to be in nature. It is simple, it is free, and taking a nature walk with your children can be an opportunity for conversation with little distraction from technology and toys.   

Tell us about your journey from first coming up with the idea for the Big World of Little Dude to becoming a published author?

Little Dude is my dog. He and I volunteer with The Good Dog Foundation as a therapy team. We volunteer at schools and hospitals in Manhattan. The experience of volunteering with Little Dude taught me about the meaning of true kindness and empathy and how a small act of kindness can have a ripple effect.

My background is in education, and I had an overwhelming feeling that I wanted to share the ideas of kindness and empathy with children. I was teaching at a wonderful school, West Side Montessori, and they allowed me to bring Little Dude into the classroom and teach the children about being kind to others. This inspired me to write a book, so these ideas could be shared with many children.

At the same time, I began to discover an unmet need in school curriculum, that social and emotional skills were not being explicitly taught. We teach our children numbers, letters, art, music – why not teach social and emotional skills in a formal way that can be assessed and measured? This lead me to write a social and emotional literacy-based curriculum. 

Writing is a very self-driven pursuit. How do you stay motivated?

I love being creative and using my imagination, this is what drives me. When I read my stories to children and see their faces light up, their eyes engaged and eager to see the next page turn, this propels me forward to continue to write.

Writing tends to be a solo activity, it is about making the time, with intention, to sit down and put pen to paper or fingers to keyboard. I have different tactics that help me with the writing process so it does not feel overwhelming. I go in baby steps. I leave the work to sit and then return with fresh eyes. It is a process.

The new series are books you can read and sing and I work with an amazing musician. Collaborating in the writing process has been life-changing. We click, the words flow and we have a lot of laughs in the process. 

Where do you find community as you progress this self-driven work?

Finding different communities to feel nurtured and supported has been the biggest game changer for my business in the last year. I belong to the co-working space The Wing, and it feels like I am working in a beehive, with amazing queen bees buzzing, hustling and taking over the world. It is a very motivating environment to work in. The Big World of Little Dude curriculum will be part of enrichment programming for The Wing’s new child-centered space, The Little Wing, which I am super excited about!

HeyMama is a fierce community of mamas and it is wonderful to know an army of amazing women, who you can reach out to for guidance, advice and support. Female Founders Collective is helping to identify women run businesses, so consumers and clients know that your business is female founded. And Mindr! I love being able to attend events, with my daughter, with other mother's and engage with learning. Knowledge is power and learning should never cease. 

What’s one big objective you have for 2019? 

To see Big World of Little Dude as a mixed medium video series, a combination of puppets (puppets are wonderful teaching tool for young children), live actors and animation.  

Cara Zelas teaches kindness to children all around the world. She is an author and educator originally from Sydney, Australia and now living in New York City with her family and therapy dog, Little Dude. Cara and Little Dude visit hospitals and schools throughout New York City, where they deliver kindness and support to those in need. Little Dude has taught Cara and countless children that being kind to others is contagious.



Keeping cabin fever at bay, Part III


Keeping cabin fever at bay, Part III

Spring has sprung! And yet, as seems to happen every year, the cold drags on… and on… and on. We partnered with our friends at Bumkins to interview three intrepid #MindrMamas about their tips and tools for keeping her little ones happy and occupied during the colder days. In this final part in our series, we caught up with Ariel Scheer Stein, a high school teacher turned stay-at-home mom to Adina Lila and Noa Ella and the mama behind, to find out her tips for riding out the last of the cold.

What are your go-to strategies for keeping the kiddos entertained at home on chillier days?

We don’t have tons of space in our two bedroom apartment, but we’ve still found ways to keep our toddler and baby entertained:

  • Move around from room to room: Rather than staying in our living room all day, we spend some time in the girls’ bedroom playing with their toys and books in there. Then we'll switch over to my room for a while and have "tickle fights" and dance parties on my bed. Later we'll move back out to the living room, and that way we don't get tired or bored of being in the same space all day.

  • Create new toys and games: We use unexpected household items like cardboard boxes and safe kitchen utensils to come up with new games. Anyone else's kids get sick of their actual toys and just want to play with toilet paper roll or bang on some pots and pans?

  • Don’t rule out screens: This winter, we had some days with below-freezing temperatures with the windchill making the real feel -5 degrees. On days like this, we don’t leave the house at all. We let Adina watch some nursery rhymes, children’s shows, or movies (her current favorites are Sesame Street, Daniel Tiger, Word Party, and Moana) and this gives us a chance to cuddle on the couch together. It also gives both of us a much-needed break.

When you venture out of the house with them on chilly days, what kinds of activities do you focus on?

With the exception of the absolutely freezing days, I do try to get some fresh air and go out of the house every day at least once. I’ve had to make a greater effort to arrange indoor play dates with local friends. Scheduling can sometimes be tricky with unpredictable naps, but if we’re going to be stuck at home, we might as well be stuck at home together!

Snacks are always on hand with Adina’s    reusable snack bag in Arrow   , by Bumkins.

Snacks are always on hand with Adina’s reusable snack bag in Arrow, by Bumkins.

When we’re not playing in someone else’s home, we also go to some other places in the neighborhood. Our local library has a weekly story time and arts and crafts activity that we try to attend every few weeks. Adina also loves going to the Barnes and Noble to play in their children’s section, pick out some books together, and ride the escalator (so exciting)! I like going to both of these places because they’re close by, they have lots of books for Adina to choose from, and they’re free! A new indoor play space called Good Day Play Cafe opened not too far from us this past year. Adina has so much fun jumping in the ball pit, dressing up in costumes, playing with the toy kitchen, and enjoying the yummy snacks in the cafe.

What physical items are in your cold weather toolkit, both for play time at home and for heading out and about?

I always have “busy pouch” with a few tchotchke toys on hand. I usually put small finger puppets, colorful crystal rocks, and action figures inside my Bumkins pouch and take one item out at a time. The other must-have item in my winter toolkit is snacks! I never leave the house without having a few easy-to-eat snacks with us. That usually includes fruit (Adina is partial to berries, sliced apples, and clementines), a cheese stick, or the occasional yogurt pouch. I always put some kind of snack like peanut butter Bamba puffs, cheddar bunnies, or pretzels in one of the Bumkins snack bags. In my book, you can never have too many snacks!

On those really pent-up, cabin-feverish cold days, when nothing seems to keep them happy, what's your secret weapon?

That’s a tough one! I’d think my secret weapon on days like that is breaking the rules! What do I mean by that? Letting my toddler wear her helmet and ride her scooter all over our apartment. Putting our bathing suits on and going “swimming” in the bathtub with our water toys in the middle of the day. Playing music loudly and chasing each other around our home. Letting my toddler sit on the counter and act as my “sous chef” while we cook a meal together. Basically, doing things that she’s usually not allowed to do!

What's one thing you miss about winter once the warmer weather rolls around?

This is the first year that Adina really understood and enjoyed playing in the snow. She built her first snowman and rode down a hill on a sled for the first time this year. Although I love the warm weather, there is something so magical and beautiful about watching the snow fall. Once the warm weather rolls around, I miss the “magic” of the snowy winter days!


Author Chat: Ilana Stanger-Ross, A is for Advice


Author Chat: Ilana Stanger-Ross, A is for Advice

#MindrMama Ilana Stanger-Ross is a Canada-based midwife and author who has set out to turn 14 years of witnessing hundreds of births and listening to thousands of stories into the book she wished she'd had when she was pregnant. We caught up with Ilana to learn more about what makes for a positive birth experience, what “Jane the Virgin” got so right, and her hopes for A for Advice (Of the Reassuring Kind), which hits shelves on March 26th.

What do you think makes for a "good" birth experience? How can women best set themselves up for this kind of experience?

This is such an important question. Sometimes, as medical professionals, we assume that a “good” birth is any birth that isn’t clinically complicated. “That was straightforward,” we might think, assuming that just because it was textbook for us it was “good” for the laboring woman. But of course that isn’t always the case – the woman’s experience of birth may be completely different than that of her care providers: she might have been scared, or felt alone, or she might have even felt violated by the experience.

Birth is a medical event, but it is also so intimate, so primal, so personal. A woman’s experience of birth matters so much – ask the oldest woman you can find about the birth of her children and she will tell you her story, she will remember. It stays with her.

So: what makes a “good” birth for the person giving birth? The research is pretty clear on this, actually. Women who report the best birth experiences aren’t necessarily the ones who had the most clinically straightforward births, but rather those who felt that they understood all actions recommended and had a voice in any decisions.

Perhaps you were hoping for a fast, unmedicated birth at a birth center, and instead ended up having a Cesearan section following a long labor with the full gamut of interventions. But if you felt supported, if you felt safe, if you felt like you had a voice in saying, yes, this makes sense, I understand why this is happening in this way, then your experience of that birth will hopefully still feel “good” even if it’s not the birth you would have written for yourself in an ideal world.

Trust and communication are so important. Choose a care provider who takes the time to support your choices and talk through any decisions – it makes a real difference. 

You write about media portrayals of birth fueling the fear and doubt of expectant mothers. Can you recommend any shows or movies that depict labor and delivery in a more responsible and reassuring way?

My kids hate watching movie and television birth scenes with me, because I always end up yelling in frustration at the screen. But, there are some good ones out there. “Jane the Virgin” is pretty wonderful – well, up to the point where newborn Mateo gets kidnapped, at least! I also love the beginning of the birth scene in “Knocked Up,” when Katherine Heigl is laboring quietly in the tub at home, warning the Seth Rogan character not to “freak out” and to support her staying home during early labor. Also in that movie: when things do get a bit hairy, Rogan’s character questions the doctor to gain clarity around just how much of an emergency the emergency is.

There’s also a quirky Canadian show, ‘Being Erica,’ in which an OBGYN character has a lovely home water birth with Registered Midwives. Needless to say, that one is my very favorite. What these depictions have in common is that they normalize birth, allowing the drama to come from the event itself rather than from a medical emergency.

We love your philosophy that, although it is impossible to control your birth, "loss of control does not mean loss of consent." What advice do you have for women who are struggling to find their voice within what is often an overwhelming healthcare infrastructure?

Don’t give up. Keep struggling, keep asking. Reach out to other people who have had babies — see who and what they recommend. And if you can: get a doula. They are worth their weight in gold. It can absolutely be overwhelming to navigate the maternity system — especially since pregnancy can be such a vulnerable time. Having someone who is experienced with the kinds of questions and choices that may arise, who understands you and where you’re coming from, and who can rub your back while explaining where things are at, is nothing short of wonderful. I love working with doulas, and people who have doula support do report better birth experiences.

In your alphabet of advice, G is for Guilt. As you write, "We put a lot of pressure on ourselves: the perfect birth, the perfect baby, the perfect mother." Do you have advice for resisting this "mom-guilt," which can seem to begin the second we find out we are pregnant?

That’s a tough one, definitely. I think we all need a t-shirt that says just that, “Resist the mom-guilt.” Scratch that: make it a tattoo. Really though, I find that when I feel most inadequate as a mother it’s because of external pressures: I’m looking at someone else’s Instagram post of baking with their child, say, or teaching their child to read, and everything looks so picture-perfect that I immediately feel like a failure. And yet when I consider what my children really need, the clear answer is: love and security. All the rest is a kind of window-dressing.

What I’ve learned in midwifery is that women need to find the right kinds of support (including from one another) so that we feel confident in our own choices as mothers. As that confidence grows, the guilt ebbs. None of us is perfect, and perfection is not what children need, anyway. In the same way that we need to be gentle with our children, we need to be gentle with ourselves.  

What is your hope for this book and its impact on the world?

I hope that my book offers both reassurance and a kind of awakening. There’s so much pressure on pregnant people, and I do want to try to relieve some of that anxiety. At the same time, we all need to advocate for a better maternity system, prenatally and postpartum. Let’s take the pressure off ourselves, and let’s put it instead on our system. Let’s find, and demand, the support that we need and deserve.

Oh, and also: I really love the illustrations and hope others will too. 

A is for Advice is available for pre-order now on Amazon, and hits shelves at your favorite independent bookseller on March 26th.