Welcome to Joyful Toddlers!

This space is about increasing our enjoyment of the young children in our lives through concrete action and by adjusting the lens through which we view them. My work comes out of LifeWays, which is inspired by Waldorf education. I welcome your comments, and questions about increasing your enjoyment of the children in YOUR life.


Thursday, December 30, 2010

A Homey Home


In this wintery time, it's easy to start feeling cooped up in your house. If you have toddlers, you're bound to feel cooped up! There are two things to do. The first is to make sure that children get outside-time every day, no matter what the weather. I'll write an article next week on how to approach that to make it feel feasible and enjoyable in snowy weather. In the meantime, the second thing to do is to work on making your house a welcoming and homey place.  When children are in a calmer space, they often respond with calmer energy.

Think about places or homes you've been to that feel warm and welcoming. Where were they? What were they like? What was it about them that made them feel especially homey? How could you make your home more like that?  I know that for myself, there are a few things that make a home feel really homey, and I use them all at Rainbow Bridge. Give these some thought and see if they apply for you, too.

Comfort, Beauty & Practicality
A home that feels really homey makes sure that each space is not only practical, but has both comfort and beauty as well. Beauty without comfort feels like a museum-space instead of a home; comfort without beauty can feel hectic and overwhelming. Do you spaces have both comfort and beauty?

Comfort—Think about comfort for yourself, and for your children. I love to use texture for comfort: lambskins are lovely for a cozy space, velvet curtains, silks, cushions and quilts are all in use all around Rainbow Bridge, and all help to make it feel comfortable. Also, make sure that your furniture is comfortable. I have a friend who has had the same couch for years. She had moved it around from house to house because it was light and easy to move, but it was so uncomfortable to sit on that nobody in her family used it. When she finally got a comfortable couch (from the thrift store; it wasn't expensive), it immediately expanded the usable space in her home and made her home more homey.  Having comfortable, usable spaces for your family can help you spread out and use your entire house, instead of only congrating in one spot.

Beauty—Make space in your home for beauty. Tacking a deep blue cloth with gold stars to the ceiling and walls over your child's bed is easy and quick, but changes the whole feel of the room. If your shelves are jammed full of stuff, try hanging an embroidered silk curtain over the whole thing; it will calm the space immediately. In book cases, make room here and there to showcase small, beautiful things that you love. Painting the walls can really change the feeling of a room. If painting a room feels overwhelming, try painting just one wall. This can often change the entire feeling, at only a fraction of the time and effort. Also, look at your child's toys and the things that are strewn around your house. Are they beautiful to look at? I love toys made out of wood, wool, silk or stone, that are beautiful in their own right.

Make it Practical—A home that is truly homey is not just beautiful, but also practical. This sometimes means giving up how we 'think' things should be, and figuring out what works, and how to do it gracefully. At Rainbow Bridge, I was convinced that I wanted a full-sized table for all of us to sit at, because I didn't like the idea of having a kid-table in my diningroom after the children left for the day. But getting a table to sit fourteen is not easy. Not only was it enormous, but I had to get three or four different kinds of chairs to fill it up. When I finally gave in to practicality and got a kid-friendly table, the space felt so much more spacious and open, I wondered why I hadn't done it earlier. Other practical ideas might include having a play-space near the kitchen, putting a low book case in the hallway for toys, etc. What would be a practical change for your house that would make your life easier, and your house more of a home?

Perhaps the biggest thing you can do to make a space feel welcoming is to de-clutter. This can feel like quite a challenge with a busy life and toddlers in the house, but it makes an enormous difference in how a space feels, both for your and for your children. Here are some low-hanging fruit that can get you started de-cluttering:

Toys—Go through toys and weed out the ones that don't get used anymore. Then go through them again and put half of them into boxes so that you can rotate toys in and out of use. We do this at Rainbow Bridge, and children are always thrilled to see old 'friends' reappear. I often change toys when the seasons change, but you could also do it at a birthday time, or other holidays.

Use shelves—One great way to help keep clutter down is to have more shelf-space than you know what to do with. Have shelves by the back door with baskets for hats and mittens. Have shelves by the table to keep kid-bowls and kids-cups, and they can help set their place at the table. Have shelves in your study and put baskets on for mail, computer accessories, anything else that would normally be cluttering up your desk. If you can, get beautiful wooden book cases; to me, nothing says homey more than golden wood book cases!

Cover things up—Having twelve kids per day at Rainbow Bridge means that we have a lot of 'stuff' around. One of the ways we handle this is through the judicial use of curtains: velvet curtains cover up shelves filled with table-settings, dry goods, extra hats, you name it. We put curtains on the changing table to hide nine packs of diapers. Now when you look around, you see warm velvet instead of crowded shelves.

Hot Spots—Every house has 'hot spots': places that collect junk. Often this is near the door, or on a desk. The 'stuff' isn't likely to go away, but how can you make it feel warmer? Baskets to catch mail and papers? A beautiful iron hook for your purse? At Rainbow Bridge our cubby space was always a huge mess. I took cloth grocery-store bags and sewed a pocket on the outside of each one in beautiful cloth, and wrote each child's name on one. Now the cubbies are three neat rows of blue bags with beautiful pockets. What a different feeling! Not to mention that it's easier for parents to pack up and leave at the end of the day.

Clean as you go—Make sure that you include clean-up as an integral part of each activity you do with your child. Not “something we have to do when the activity is done,” but as a real PART of the activity. This can include helping to clean up after meals, making their bed after naps, etc. Kids love helping to put things to rights and showing that they know where everything goes, so let it be an activity that has its own value, not something that you're trying to rush through. Take a moment after the clean-up is done to reflect on a job well-done.

So, those are a few of the ideas I have.  I hope this inpires you to look at your home with fresh eyes, and make some changes, however small. I've lived in many spaces in my life, and the ones where I take the time to create a beautiful, homey space are the ones where I've been the happiest. We're going to be inside for most of the time between now and spring. Let's make our homes as homey and as welcoming as we can.


Friday, December 17, 2010

Two Tall Trees


Dear Readers,
I want to put in a shameless plug for my friend Jess Henry and her new online store, Two Tall Trees. Jess was a member of my LifeWays training six years ago in Wisconsin, and her mother was a Waldorf teacher at the school I went to as a child.  I remember her from then as a glamorous teenager!  Since that time, Jess has worked with children in many capacities: from the start of life as a Birth Doula, to nursery school teacher, after school art teacher, summer camp director, home childcare provider, and parent-child playgroup leader. She also has two lovely children of her own.

The inspiration for Two Tall Trees came from wishing there were a central place where LifeWays care providers could go to get supplies that have actually been tested by real kids and real adults. Slowly this idea began to take root, and expand. Wouldn't it be great if parents and home childcare providers also had a forum to talk about setting up childcare space, review products they've tried, and more? That vision is just now coming to birth in Two Tall Trees. There you can find child-sized work gloves, wooden hairbrushes for only $4 a piece, fleece-lined rain pants, grain grinders for turning wheat into flour, beeswax candles, old-fashioned egg beaters, kid-sized stainless steel cups, and much, much more!

Jess's entire family is part of the business, and her children enthusiastically test every item that she sells. I really can't enthuse enough about what a resource this will be for all of us who spend our days with young children. I know she is only getting started, and I can't wait to watch Two Tall Trees grow. Please tell all of your friends and your kids' teachers!


Monday, December 13, 2010

Changing Diapers


Many parents and caregivers whose children actively dislike diaper-changing try to do it as fast as they can, and get it over with as quickly as possible. But in my experience, this merely accentuates all of the things kids dislike about getting their diaper changed, making it even more intensely unpleasant. On the other hand, you can spend all day trying to talk a child over to the changing table if he doesn't want to go, drawing out the unpleasantness indefinitely. What to do?

My views and practices on diaper changing were altered terrifically by my LifeWays training. Up until that time, I had just viewed diaper changing as a slightly unpleasant task that has to be done multiple times per day. But LifeWays suggests making times of bodily care into special times to bond with the child, and diapering is a very intimate piece of bodily care. Using this lens can completely transform your diapering experience, whether your child hates diapering or merely tolerates it. From the child's point of view, this changes the diapering experience from one of being torn away from play, manhandled, then put down again as quickly as possible, to a special time of connection with their adult. My second year of teaching, I was so inspired by these ideas and I made diaper changing such a special time that none of the children had any interest in potty training! But that's a post for another day.

Going to the Changing Table
Breaking kids away from their play can be difficult, especially if your child already has a negative association with diaper changing. Having a routine, for instance, always change their diaper right after they're done eating but before their play starts again, can help. Also, try diapering on the way to doing something they like. “Are you ready to go outside? Let's tidy up.” After tidying, you might say, “We're getting ready to go outside. First we'll get a fresh, dry diaper, then get on our shoes, jackets and hats, and then we'll be ready to play in the snow!” As we're going to the changing table, I'll talk about what we'll see outside, “Do you think Squirrel Pipkin will be running around in the Cottonwood tree when we get outside? I wonder if he's eaten all of the corn off of the cob we put out for him.”

If a child is playing and I can tell she's soiled her diaper, I'll let her know what's coming. “It smells like you have a poopy diaper. I'll finish wiping the table, and then I'll take you to get a new diaper.” When my table-wiping is done, I'll often give a choice: “Would you like to walk, or hop like a bunny?” Often, hopping like a bunny to the changing table is a fun enough activity to take a child's mind off where she's going; as she hops I'll sing, “Here comes Sarah Cottontail/Hopping down the bunny trail/Hippety hoppety, hippety hoppety, Sarah's on her way.” If I suspect that she won't walk or hop, I'll structure my offer so that one option involves me carrying her over: “Would you like to walk, or fly like an airplane?” Then I'll fly her here and there until she's laughing, and eventually land on the changing table.

Sometimes, though, I know that no option will be attractive, and nothing will distract her; we've been through this many times before. In that case, I'll simply ask, “Would you like to walk, or shall I carry you?” At this point, a child will sometimes ignore me, hoping that the situation will disappear. However, I know that she has a soiled diaper, and my job as the caring adult is to clean her up. I also know that no amount of reasoning or cajoling is likely to work now. You can't change emotion through logic, and she DOESN'T WANT to. I acknowledge this: “You wish you could keep playing. I get that. But it's time to get a new diaper. Will you choose, or shall I choose for you?” If she still refuses to make a choice, I'll say, “OK, I'll choose this time,” and I pick her up. Often at that point she'll suddenly say, “I walk. I walk.” But I tell her compassionately, “I'm sorry, it's too late to choose now. You can choose to walk next time.” This may sound draconian to some parents, but my experience is that this rarely happens more than twice if you're consistent; after that children know to choose when the choice is offered, and things go much more smoothly all around. The key is to do it with compassion; you don't have to be mean in order to be firm.

On the Changing Table
Whew! You made it to the changing table! The hardest part is done!

How can this be? you might ask. You've had lots of trouble on the changing table, and you're girding your loins for battle. However, my experience is that the transition of leaving play is the hardest part, and once you're on the changing table, you can shape the experience into one where you're connecting with each other. And the counter-intuitive trick that will change your diapering experience is this: if your child hates having his diaper changed, slow it waaaaayyyy down. Instead of making this about changing the dirty diaper as quickly as possible, make it about having eye-to-eye face-time with your child. Make it a time of you loving on him and connecting with him. Make the diaper-changing aspect of it into a side note.

Here's how I do it: when a child is laying down on the changing table, I look down at him and smile into his eyes. Sometimes I'll stroke his hair and down both sides of his face while I do it. Then I'll grin a little and lift the bottom of his shirt, and play a belly-button game: “All around the haystack goes the little mouse,” I'll say, circling his belly-button with my finger. Then I'll start to 'walk' my fingers up his tummy. “One step, two step, into his little house!” And that mouse will run up into his armpit. I'll do this two or three or even four times in row, until he's relaxed and smiley. Sometimes I'll alternate the rhyme with this one: “All around the playground goes the teddy bear. One step, two step, tickly under there!”

Next, I'll take off his pants. If he starts to get anxious because he knows the diaper-changing is about to start, I'll pause again, and do a little game with his feet: clapping his feet together sole to sole, I'll chant, “Shoe a little horse! Shoe a little mare! But little Justin's feet go bare, bare bare!” Then I'll kiss the bottom of one foot while looking up at his face, then the bottom of the other. I'll alternate feet, kissing and kissing again until he's relaxed once more. Then I'll pull out one or two wipes and get the new diaper open and ready, talking about the mobile that's hanging above his head, or the mama-baby picture at the foot of the table. I'll open the soiled diaper very slowly, pull it away and put it in the diaper pail with one hand, holding my other warmly against his tummy.  Once I had a little boy in my care who hated diapering, and I was changing his diaper while his mom watched, so she could get some new ideas.  I opened his diaper and he began to writhe and buck.  So I put my face down into his neck and started giving him lots of loud kisses, making them much more attention-grabbing than the diaper coming off.  "I see," the mother said thoughtfully, "You just kiss him into submission!"  I had to laugh.

Now comes the part that many children dislike: being wiped with cold wet wipes. I once had a wipe-warmer that was like a low-grade hotplate that went under the container of wipes, but it would dry the pack out, so I got rid of it. Instead, I'll hold the wipe up and say in a silly voice, “It might be chilly.” Then I'll put the wipe against his bottom and hold it in one place for a moment until it warms up. “Brrrr! Oh, now it's not so bad.” Then I'll start wiping, but sooooo ssllloooowwwlllyyy. While this is happening, I'm looking at his face, not at his bottom. Depending on the child, at this point I might simply look silently into his eyes, or I might tell a little story, a longer nursery rhyme (I like the on that starts “There was an old woman thrown up in a basket/seventeen times as high as the moon”), or, if being wiped is a very intense experience for this little boy, I'll make sound effects as I slowly wipe: “Zzzzzzzooop! Zzzzzooop!” Then I might change the speed a little, changing the speed of my sounds as I do: “Zoop-zoop!” for two little dabs, then a longer stroke again, “Zzzzzzzzoooop.” We are both watching each other and concentrating on the sounds and the feeling of the wipe. I smile at him. “That's a strange feeling, huh? You're doing a great job. I'm proud of you.” I give him a kiss on the forehead. We put on his new diaper, and I open the tabs and let him help place them. I stand him up and have him give me a big hug as I pull up his pants. Then I hug him back, and nuzzle his neck, and swing him down from the changing table. “Come on, let's go wash our hands,” I'll say.

So, the main thing is, get them to the changing table fairly quickly, and then take it slow and make it into a time where you're connecting with each other.  The diaper will get changed, but that's not what he will remember from it.  If you're stuck in a rut of neither of you liking it, don't be discouraged if it takes some time for them to get over their negative associations.  Just keep at it.  Good luck!

Miss Faith

Thursday, December 9, 2010

The Spirit of Giving

The holiday time is a wonderful time to help children develop the spirit of giving. Instead of giving out all of your gifts at once, try giving a gift to one person each week for six weeks, so that each time is a significant experience. Giving away things that you and the children have made together, or choosing things that you already own to give away makes the experience feel much more meaningful. Here is an example of what you might do:

WEEK 1: Gift your neighbors. Bake banana bread (or whatever you love to bake), put a ribbon around it, and take it over to your neighbors. Even if you don't know your neighbors very well, they will probably appreciate a gift in the holiday spirit, and it may open doors to getting to know them! Make a card with your child: he can color it, and you write a message that the two of you come up with together. When you and your child notice their lights on, go over and give it to them together. Children love giving gifts, but they often get too shy with excitement to present them. Even children I've seen five days a week for two years sometimes have trouble presenting me with a gift. So be prepared to do the talking, but know that your child is participating through you.

WEEK 2: Gift your play-group teacher or favorite babysitter. Teachers get lots of gifts, so think carefully about what will be appreciated. I love baked gifts, but if your teacher is watching her waistline it may not be a good idea. One of the best gifts I've gotten from a family was a gift certificate to Whole Foods in a card that parent and child had made together. It seemed both thoughtful and practical.

WEEK 3: Gift children who won't get many gifts. Help your child choose some of his toys to give to children who won't get presents, and take them to a homeless shelter or an organization like Toys for Tots. This is actually a good thing to do once a month or every other month. The average American child gets about 70 new toys each year, but children who have fewer toys tend to be more creative and appreciate the ones they have, according to Pamela Paul, author of the book Parenting, Inc. Going through your toys regularly and giving away the ones that could be better used by another child can be a wonderful way to foster a spirit of giving in your children.

WEEK 4: Gift the grandparents. A lovely gift for grandparents is a photo of your child in a frame that you and your child decorate together. If you know your parents would hate a frame like that, then perhaps make special wrapping paper for it.

WEEK 5: Gift the elders. If you have elderly friends, make a special trip to visit them and give a gift. If you don't, consider going to a local nursing home. I suggest a small, homey assisted-living home so the setting isn't too overwhelming for your child. I used to take 3-4 children each week to visit the elders at Anam Chara, a waldorf-inspired assisted-living home that housed twelve elders. Both the children and the elders loved these visits.

WEEK 6: Gift dad. Dads love gifts that moms and kids make especially for him. If dad lives at home with you, you might take him somewhere special to present the gift: go to the ice-skating rink to present a pair of gloves, to the zoo to present a wooly hat. Make sure that he knows in advance that this is a special trip in his appreciation, and make him feel as special as possible. It's nice to get this sort of acknowledgment when it's least expected!

          And of course, don't forget to make Thank You cards with your child for each person from whom he receives a gift. Help him decorate them and have him dictate a thank-you message that you write down. These are often hilarious and are always appreciated. If you can, have him give the thank you cards personally, instead of putting them in the mail. Teach them to say “Thank you for your gift” when they hand it out. Practice on the way over, but if they get too shy to say it themselves, ask “Would you like me to say it for you this time?” When you say something for a child, they often feel like they're saying it themselves, so don't worry if they still ask you to say it for them the fourth or fifth time. They will say it for themselves soon enough.

Monday, December 6, 2010

Book Review: The Family Virtues Guide

Several years ago I was at a conference on early childhood. Between workshops, I was eating lunch with a friend and talking about the workshops we had attended. She had a son who was six years old, very intelligent, very intense, somewhat overwhelming. Interested in everything, he always wanted to be the center of attention, and often dominated conversations. She said, “My workshop leader said something really interesting. She works with a group call The Virtues Project, and she said that it sounds like my son has an excess of enthusiasm, which is a virtue. Instead of trying to dampen down his enthusiasm, I could work to strengthen other virtues that would balance him out. In this case, she suggested that I strengthen his sense of respectfulness.” Knowing her son as I did, I was absolutely astounded. Yes! That was exactly what was needed! What an incredible way of viewing the situation.

When I got home I had so much new information to assimilate that I never got around to looking up The Virtues Project. But that conversation stayed with me, and I often thought of it, especially when I was working with very intense children. Finally, I looked up The Virtues Project online, and ordered their book, The Family Virtues Guide: Simple Ways to Bring Out the Best in Our Children and Ourselves.

I was only moderately impressed with the book itself. It has great ideas but it seems poorly organized; it has so many sections and sub-sections within each chapter that it was sometimes hard for me to keep track of things, and I wished they gave more concrete examples. Also, it didn't address the issue of how to talk to children about virtues differently at different ages. The book goes through 52 virtues, with the idea that families might choose a virtue each week to work on and notice, then have a family meeting each week to talk about their experiences. This strategy seems much better for school-aged children, and is far too cerebral for kids under age 7, in my opinion.  However, it could still be useful for parents to pick one virtue to notice each week, without talking it out with the kids.  When we notice and appreciate virtues in our children or in others, it brings them out and enriches our lives.

All in all, there were more than enough take-away lessons that I felt the book was well worth reading. I love the idea of changing behaviors by calling up the virtue you see and then the virtue they would benefit from: patience, kindness, obedience, helpfulness. The book points out, “When a parent as educator puts a stop to negative behavior, he is being just as loving as when he applauds a child for effort.” (p.22-23).

I also got some food for thought from the book's examination of acknowledging children when you see them exhibiting virtues. First, they warn you to use 'moderation and wisdom' in dispensing praise: “Children are quite sensitive to the justice and honesty of your responses to them...Children themselves know when they have done well, when they truly merit recognition. That may be why some children get very upset in the face of undeserved or excessive praise. Undeserved praise is almost as troubling to their spirits as criticism.” (p.21).
Even more unexpected and --I thought-- insightful, they go on to say, “Please do not overdo the use of 'Thank you' such as 'Thank you for being peaceful.' The object is not to lessen the noise level for your comfort alone; it is for the child to learn the lesson of peacefulness. Overdoing thanks places you at the center of their conscience instead of the their conscience at the center of themselves.” (p.22).  I will certainly keep that in mind.

I feel like I already did my best to acknowledge and bring out virtues in the children I care for, but in a somewhat unconsious way.  This book is lovely because it gives us a framework to do it in.  Do visit their website, http://www.virtuesproject.com/index.php. If I see a workshop of theirs in my neighborhood, I will definitely sign up.


Thursday, December 2, 2010

Arts & Crafts with Toddlers

This post is for you, Aralyn, and for anyone else who cares for groups of toddlers. Much of it can also be used by moms at home with their kids.

One thing I've noticed working in childcare is that parents love having craft projects that get sent home. I think that it gives them a way to visualize what their children were doing during the day, and it also can form a bridge between home and 'school.' So they have their value. However, arts & crafts projects can be a real challenge with toddlers, who have limited impulse control, limited ability to follow directions, and limited understanding of what you do or don't want on your chairs, floors and walls. Many projects end up with the teachers doing 90% of the work, and the children doing lots of waiting for the teacher's help.

What crafts can be done successfully with toddlers, and in such a way that both the children and caregivers really enjoy it?

1. Coloring is an easy craft to do. Make big coloring mats out of cotton-backed vinyl (available at most fabric stores) or even just taking a quarter-inch stack of single-page newspapers and putting a strong border of masking tape or duct tape around the edges. Use big, sturdy crayons (I like the Stockmar stick crayons best; you can find them at Three Sisters Toys ). I keep the crayons in a bowl and allow each child to pick two crayons to use. If they want to switch colors, they must put one of their crayons back in the bowl to pick another. When children are done coloring, they put both crayons back in the bowl, and put their picture in their cubby, and they are free to play.

2. Baking is a project that children of all ages love. We bake all the time at Rainbow Bridge, but we usually eat what we bake. One day I realized it could be turned into a craft project by having each child form his dough into a shape, and decorate it with raisins. I remembered which was whose, and we sent them home at the end of the day. The kids were excited to show their parents, and parents were pleased to receive them. The trick to baking successfully with toddlers is to be very organized. Assemble all of the ingredients you'll need before you start. The initial mixing parts are all about waiting and turn-taking, so I always go around the table in a circle so the children know when their turn will come. Let each child hold the measuring cup and pour in one ingredient. When you're done, each child can take a turn mixing. Sing a short song (I use All Around the Mulberry Bush), and when the song is over, the child passes the bowl and spoon to the child next to her. After the dough has risen comes the fun part, kneading. Everyone can knead at the same time, and I knead too. You have to make your own rules about whether they are allowed to take nibbles or not, and how many. After the kneading is done, bring out the raisins to decorate, and put them on a cookie sheet. These projects bake quickly, usually 15 minutes or so.

3. Watercolor painting can be done with toddlers, but it's very difficult if you're on your own with six kids, as it needs constant supervision. If you want to do this, invite a parent volunteer to come in and help.

4. Seasonal Crafts: There are always crafts to do with the seasons.

1. For fall, put leaves under paper and color over top with block crayons or the side of a stick crayon. You can also iron leaves between sheets of wax paper (a challenge if you're by yourself with the kids), and decorate the edges with paintings or colored paper. Make apple crisp, or pumpkin pie from a pumpkin, and save pieces for each parent. You can also make apple-gnomes, putting a little felt hat onto an apple and carving eyes and a mouth. As it dries out and withers, the gnome's face gets more and more wrinkled and cool looking.  Here's an example: http://www.appledolls.org/page2.html

2. For Winter, have kids color with blue and purple, then cut the drawing into a snowflake for the child to take home. Make pomander oranges to send home. This is a one-on-one project to do with each child: attach a ribbon to the orange (you can use pins to make it stay), and then you poke a hole in the orange with a toothpick or a darning needle, and the child puts a clove into the hole. You don't have to cover the whole orange, you can make designs with the cloves: http://www.aromatherapy-at-home.com/. Also, making snowmen with the children and dressing them in scarves and hats, with gloves on the ends of their stick arms, is fun. Parents can't take it home, but it can be showed off and parents can imagine their child making it.

3. For Spring, of course plant things! Plant crocus and hyacinth bulbs in pots and grow them indoors. I've done very successful Mother's Day gifts where the children decorated small pots, and we planted marigolds in them together. Both the decorating and the planting were done outside. We also make an Easter Egg tree with blown eggs: take a branch from a flowering tree and put it in a vase weighted down with pebbles (the kids can help with the pebbles).  Depending on what climate you live in, it can be great to start with a bare branch, then watch the leaves come out, then the flowers. One by one, you can blow eggs and decorate them with the kids, either with paint and a paint-brush, or with scraps of different colored tissue paper. Just dab a drop of water onto the egg, and a child can put a scrap piece of tissue paper onto the water. Put 3-4 layers of tissue paper over the whole egg. We hang each egg on the 'tree,' then the day before spring break each child got to take one home.  Also, growing wheat grass is easy and fun.  Get baskets from a thrift store, line them with plastic (sturdy plastic wrap, or those plastic holders you put under flower pots), and put your wheat grass inside.  You can use dirt or just the wheat berries by themselves; soak them overnight and don't let them dry out.  Each child can take a basket home before Spring Break.
4. For Summer, wet felting can be a very fun outdoor activity: http://www.ourbigearth.com/. We made balls and then attached 'comet-tails' of ribbons to them, and called them meteor balls (in Colorado August sees many meteor showers). We didn't send them home as craft projects, but you certainly could.
Hope that gets your creative juices flowing! The first key to doing crafts with toddlers (especially if you're alone), is to think the process through and do as much work up-front as you can, gathering all of the materials you'll need, etc. The second key is, just do one step at a time, and keep it containable. By this I mean that you may be called away from the project at any moment if a child across the room is having problems, so you need to be able to pick things up and put them on the counter if it's something kids can't touch without supervision. And third, don't rush, just relax and have fun. After all, if nobody's enjoying it, what's the point?