Dina Ottoni Battistessa is a mom to 3 active boys. She is also a wife, educator, entrepreneur, author and self proclaimed minimalista! Dina has always had a passion for supporting parents and children through the early years and beyond. She graduated with a Double major in Liberal Arts and Women Studies and went on to complete a Bachelor’s Degree in Child Studies and Development from Concordia University, Montreal. By day Dina is the co-owner at Akidemy Preschool located in Calgary, Alberta and Akidemy Playbox. By night Dina is busy sharing all her tidbits and experience about children, parenting, and simple living on her blog and Instagram. Nothing short of ambitious, her goal is to continue to connect, grow and always share!
In this episode:
- Carving out time. Creating structure & a routine allows us to have meaningful connection time with our kids & allows us to prioritize ourselves as parents.
- Kids need time to play. The skills and benefits will carry through with them throughout their lives.
- Sensory play encourages motor skill development, language development, scientific thinking, problem solving, & mindfulness.
- Simple living involves everything having a place physically but also time management & a predictable environment.
Connect with Dina:
FAMILY OF ENTREPRENEURS
Dina feels like she was born into a family of entrepreneurs. Her dad had his own business when she was growing up that‘s been in their family for almost 80 years. Dina’s husband is also self-employed. When they met, he had his own brick and mortar retail space. There was just something about that life, including the flexibility and being your own boss, that always appealed to Dina. This is not something that happens often in the field of Education. Dina’s career in early childhood education has always been in the nonprofit sector.
WHAT DO YOU WANT TO BE WHEN YOU GROW UP?
In 2004, when Dina first moved to Calgary, she was sitting at a coffee shop with her fiance (now husband). She was working for a large non-profit at the time and 24 years old. Her finance asked her, “What do you want to be when you grow up?”. In the building where they were having coffee, there was a bay. She pointed to it and told him that she would want to open up her own preschool program in a bay in a little building like this right in the heart of a community. Then, she wouldn’t have the red tape of a board and change could happen more quickly. Her fiance told her that he hoped that she got that one day. Dina remembers walking away from that coffee outing feeling like she had just put her dream out to the universe.
10 YEARS LATER
Who would have ever thought that 10 years later, that’s exactly where Akidemy would open their doors! Dina and her husband moved into that community in 2006 and got to know all of the different retailers that are in the building, especially the owner of the liquor store. Dina and her husband are both Italian and love wine! The liquor store owner’s wife ran a day home and still does to this day. She and Dina often talked about working in the industry. Dina, at the time, was managing day homes. The liquor store owner and his wife knew that Dina’s dream was to open a preschool.
One day, they let Dina know that the chiropractor in the building was leaving and this was her chance to open her program! This was in January of 2014. Dina picked up the phone that night and I called her best friend Tristan who she had known, at that point, for six or seven years. Dina knew that this wasn’t something she could do on her own. She is the big creative idea, programming, and staff person and Tristan is the details and admin person. Dina knew that if the two of them collaborated they would be a force to be reckoned with.
THE START OF AKIDEMY
Dina remembers calling Tristan and her telling Dina that she was crazy. Tristan needed more information. That night, Dina sat down and put together a business plan, researched, and did a needs assessment of the community. She put together this 20 page business plan and pitch and sent it to Tristan. That was the start of Akidemy and now they are in year eight.
A SMALL WORLD MOMENT
A couple of years ago, Dina and her family were staying at a hotel in Osoyoos. Her kids were playing in the pool with kids from another family and the mom happened to be sitting right beside Dina. It turns out the mom was the chiropractor who used to be in the space that is now Akidemy Preschool!
Dina says that she has done a really good job of realizing what her needs are. She recognizes that if she can meet her own needs that she will be a better parent, a better wife, and a better person. Dina is very ambitious and has always had big goals for herself. Her husband has always honored that. Aligning yourself with a partner who is on the same page as you, who has the same values and morals, and who supports your lofty goals, makes such a difference. Dina’s kids see that she sets aside time to do the things that she needs to do to accomplish her goals and still be there for them.
Dina finds it helpful to create some sort of routine around her relationship with her kids. Her eldest, who is 19 and lives away from home, comes home every Sunday for dinner. Her younger children know that things are predictable when they come home. They know when she is going to connect with them and what that’s going to look like.
CARVING OUT TIME FOR CONNECTION
For parents, especially women, it can feel like in your role as caregiver, you have to be involved in every single thing. That’s not what connection is based on. Connection is based on really carving out that time. Engaging in 20 to 30 minutes of child led play, where your child takes the lead, can create incredible trust and attachment with your child. Building in quiet play time, time for them to be on their own, and boredom time, are your times to get things done. For Dina, it’s been about creating a routine and structure where she is carving out time for herself.
TIME FOR HERSELF
Dina is not the mom who wakes up at 5 AM. She gets eight or nine hours of sleep every night and wakes up at 7:30 AM. She doesn’t need to have her kids be asleep in order to make time for herself. She empowers her children to know that she needs time to do the things that she needs to do. It’s important for them to see their mom or dad prioritize themselves.
WE ARE ALL HUMAN
Dina says that regardless of all the things you might know being an educator and what your best intentions are, you’re still human. Parenting is hard. She feels like part of her job now as an educator and working more with parents is being able to support parents with putting together a toolbox of strategies. For example, taking a breath for a minute and walking away. Being mindful and reflecting on what kind of parent you want to be and what your family’s core values can be helpful as well.
CO-IMAGINERS, CO-LEARNERS, & CO-RESEARCHERS
Dina feels like she is learning alongside her kids. Her biological kids and her stepson are both past the ages that are her areas of expertise as a teacher which are 0 – 8 years old. Dina helps them to navigate the emotional side of learning and to support them along the way. This idea of shared learning is also her perspective and approach with her staff at Akidemy. They are co-imaginers, co-learners, and co-researchers. As much as she thinks she might know, she is learning alongside them.
NOT HAVING ALL THE ANSWERS
Dina learned a lot about herself as a parent and as an educator with her middle child’s diagnosis of ADHD inattentive type with a severe receptive and expressive language delay. As an educator, she saw the red flags and felt that her ego got in the way. At first, she felt that she could support him but realized that she needed to learn more about the strategies and tools that he needed. Dina didn’t have all the answers.
PUTTING IN THE EFFORT
She didn’t want to put all these academic pressures on her kids. With her middle child in particular, Dina was very clear that all she wanted him to do was to put in effort. She didn’t care if he failed. Dina just wanted to know that he had worked hard. That’s all that matters. Going through this experience with her middle child shifted her philosophy a little bit as an educator.
THE IMPORTANCE OF PLAY
Play is not just the work of children. It is a lifelong cyclical thing. Play starts out as something joyful because we’re curious. Dina sees this every day at work. The young children at her preschool have a superpower to wonder and create and this comes through as joy. Even through the failures in play, like the blocks falling down, problem solving happens.
A CORE VALUE OF PLAY
For adults, there is play in our passions, our side hustles, and our work. For Dina, a core value in her home and at work is playfulness. At work she can be playful and enjoy what she is doing. Even through the failures and struggles, there is such a great feeling that comes with figuring things out.
REMEMBERING TO SLOW DOWN
With the current pandemic, Dina feels that we have been reminded to slow down. For example, families don’t have the busy schedule of extracurricular activities with the current restrictions.
REFLECTING ON HER CHILDHOOD
Dina played very competitive hockey at a high level and was around that world for a long time. It was stressful and she loved it but she didn’t love it ‘that’ much. Dina loved all these other things in her life too. She loved her time to just strum her guitar in my room and to write poetry. Her parents had good intentions but they wanted her to practice hockey and to take shots on the net on their outdoor makeshift rink.
PLAYING OUTSIDE ALL DAY
Dina didn’t want that for her kids. She wanted them to really enjoy their childhood. Dina feels that a lot of people forget that we live in a safer world today than any other time. However, you don’t see children playing in the streets like we did 20 or 30 years ago. Dina and her brother would wake up and be outside all day. When she would wash her hands, the water would run gray from playing in the dirt and mud.
CHOOSING ONE THING
When Dina and her husband got married, they decided that their kids would commit to one thing. Sports definitely have a place and value but kids don’t need to do everything. Dina found that there was a lot of competition among moms about all the things their kids were doing. She did not want to be one of those people. For Dina and her husband, their kids could each choose one thing that they liked and if they wanted to move on, they could. At times, we have to push our children a little bit to try and commit. That’s part of it. However, when they’re done, they’re done. You know that and they know that.
THE OPPORTUNITY TO PLAY
Dina’s kids find joy in the team sport or individual sport that they have committed to and then, she kicks them outside to play! She encourages them to figure it out and to go ring someone’s doorbell. Dina loves that her 13 year old still plays. Just recently, he went outside with his younger brother and some other kids in the neighbourhood and built a massive fort. They brought sticks from down the street and from a forest that they found. There’s so much learning and value in play without having an adult hanging over kids. Problem-solving and negotiating are things that are happening in this space. We need to remember to give children that opportunity to play because these skills and benefits will carry through with them throughout their lives.
A LOVE OF OUTDOOR PLAY
For Dina and her family, outdoor play is their favourite. Her boys are very physical and like to move their bodies.Her family enjoys walking, biking, swimming, and skiing. People thought that they were crazy to put a swimming pool in their backyard in Calgary but they love it! If you were to pull up on Dina’s street after school, you would find her kids outside. Dina says that it is incredible to see kids come together and what they can create when they are playing.
TIME FOR TECHNOLOGY
Dina says that her kids are a product of today’s world. When it’s indoor time, they do use technology. She and her husband monitor their kids’ technology use with an app. Dina doesn’t like to micromanage them and she wants her kids to know that she can trust them. They each get an allotted time that they can use at their choosing on Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays. They’re not allowed during the week just because there’s just too much stuff going on after school and she would rather them play outside. Dina says that her kids would pick playing outside over being on electronics any day.
With toys, Dina tries to be mindful of their ages and what they are interested in. Her son Anthony recently got a microscope and Dina’s dad recently got her son Stefano a rock washing system. Dina loves these really cool STEM toys! A favourite with her kids is also Lego.
One of Dina’s kids loves creating things from various materials. She equipped him with an art cart in his room. On the bottom shelf of the cart are odds and ends including various recyclable materials such as cardboard scraps and yogurt lids and containers. On the second shelf are his tools like glue, a glue gun, tape, and scissors. Finally, on the top shelf are paint, markers, string, and wire. He comes up with all kinds of amazing creations! Dina thinks that they are so cool and amazing but sometimes isn’t sure what to do with all the things that he makes. Dina really admires her son for being such a creator. She is quite creative herself while her husband is more linear and sometimes wonders what is going on!
LOOSE PARTS AND SENSORY PLAY
When Dina and Tristan opened Akidemy Preschool in 2014, they were rolling out a beautiful philosophy and emergent approach largely centered around loose parts and sensory play. They thought that it would be amazing if families could bring the Akidemy experience into their homes. In 2014/2015, the subscription box movement was growing. They wondered about creating a subscription box for younger children. With just starting their business, it just didn’t seem like the right time.
Two years ago they had a practicum student do her capstone project with them on how to bring together this potential sensory bin for families. She also looked at their role as the educational experts. The student presented her plan to her professor at the end of her practicum and the professor was really impressed! However, Dina and Tristan were looking at opening a second Akidemy location and that’s where their energy was focused.
THE IMPACT OF COVID
However, when Covid hit, they had to shut down their preschool programs and they knew that they wouldn’t be able to open again until September. Preschools had to follow the same directives as the education system even though they fall under the Children’s Service Ministry with childcare services.
THE AKIDEMY PLAYBOX
This meant that they had no revenue as all of their income comes from parent fees. They didn’t know how they would support their staff. Dina and Tristan had actually hired their previous capstone practicum student and she encouraged them to do the Akidemy Playbox. They initially thought they would just do this for their Akidemy families but then, they thought that other families could benefit from it as well.
12 DIFFERENT WAYS TO PLAY
The Akidemy Playbox includes 12 different ways to play along with sensory materials and tools. It also comes with play guides that explain the how to’s, the why, what materials you can add from home, and what questions you can ask your child to further their exploration and play. The Akidemy Playbox was designed to empower parents to support their children’s play and learning.
Sourcing materials and the product world was something entirely new for Dina and Tristan and they had to figure things out in a month. Kiki from Pinnovate was a huge support with sourcing materials and marketing. Friends who were influencers offered their support in getting word about the Akidemy Playbox out into the world. They had 200 orders in 2 days! After Jillian Harris got her hands on a box and shared on social media, they sold 500 boxes in a month.
BENEFITS OF SENSORY PLAY
There are so many benefits that come from sensory play. Especially in these times, children need an outlet more than ever particularly for their social and emotional well being. With younger children that comes through playing with sensory materials. It helps to build nerve connections in the brain. Sensory play encourages motor skill development, language development, scientific thinking, problem, solving, and mindfulness.
Simple living is important to Dina and a big part of this is that everything has its place physically but also in terms of time management and a predictable environment. Dina and her family are minimalists through and through. She likes to keep their environment as simple as possible. Dina’s children thrive in that environment.
THE NEEDS OF YOU AND YOUR FAMILY
Dina says that it comes down to knowing what your needs are and what your family’s needs are. Your core values can really help guide you. For Dina’s family, they have created a space that they call home where they know where things go and what comes next. This helps them to create this simple living environment. Her kids feel like there’s nothing unexpected and there’s no unpredictability. This is a big part of calming the noise around them a little bit.
ROUTINE IS KEY
Creating a routine has been key to simple living for Dina and her family. Visual cues can be helpful with younger children such as pictures so that your child knows what’s coming up next. If your kids are doing home based learning, have a schedule for them so that the predictability is there. Sometimes, Dina even writes the schedule for the day on the mirror of her kids’ bathroom with a dry erase marker. When they were younger, she had visual cues for them in their bedrooms, in the bathroom, and on the way down the hall.
Meal planning has also been a big part of Dina’s family approach to simple living. For example, they know what is for breakfast everyday of the week and made this plan together. Mondays are currently waffles and Tuesdays are eggs. They revisit and change things up every month. Before implementing this strategy, it seemed like mornings were crazy. Dina’s kids would come down and want this and want that.
A LEARNING EXPERIENCE
A big learning experience for Dina was with her son Anthony and his diagnosis. She has always encouraged early intervention and then, she found herself in a situation where, in hindsight, she could have acted sooner. When he was three years old, she and Anthony were playing a game with colors and he wasn’t able to identify them correctly. Her gut was telling her that something was up.
FOLLOW YOUR GUT
Dina doesn’t have any regrets but when she looks back, she knows that she could have gotten earlier intervention. She has had moments where she cried herself to sleep and her head was spinning. Dina’s advice for parents is to follow your gut as you know your children best. Now, Anthony is thriving. He got on the honor roll and he has strategies that help him succeed. Dina and her husband advocate for him and he also advocates for himself.
PUT YOURSELF FIRST
Dina stresses the importance of putting yourself first. This doesn’t mean you’re being selfish. It doesn’t mean you love your children any less. You need to know what your needs are. If you can’t meet your own needs then, you can’t meet the needs of your children. We all see the Pinterest worthy moms out there. You have to get away from the noise. Look at what is real. You need to connect with your child but it doesn’t mean you have to be with your child twenty-four seven.
IT ALL GOES BY SO FAST
Dina’s 19 year old moved out last summer. He’s being independent and growing up. It all goes by so fast. So, even in the hard moments, embrace it. Look at the hard times as teachable moments for both your child and yourself. Every step along the way, is just leading you to letting go of their hand. Before you know it, they’re walking out the door. When they are gone, it makes more space for you. That’s why you need to know who you are. Dina’s younger kids go to bed at 8:00 or 8:30. Their eldest used to hang out and chat with her and her husband until 11:00. Now, that’s gone.
ENJOY THE MOMENT
Slow down, enjoy the moment, and tune out the noise. Some of the stuff that you see out there is not really real. They are those picture perfect Pinterest worthy moments that people capture. That’s not the real moments. The messy moments are great too.
Thanks so much to Dina for this awesome conversation and thank YOU for tuning in!