Monday, July 30, 2012

Opportunities for learning abound

I've bragged before that my son is a smart cookie, and to set the stage for this post I'm going to brag some more. By 16 months Evan knew all his letters, could count to 10, had a vocabulary of literally hundreds of words, could apply abstract concepts to real-lilfe objects, and has a memory like a steel trap. I'd like to say that he is this way because I'm a super-mega-awesome mom and I fill his little brain with all this knowledge and deserve a big ol' pat on the back — but that's not true. He was born with some very special gifts, and nothing I do or don't do can take away from that. I am just really a proud mama and am in awe of the amazing things he does and learns so quickly.

Now, having said that, it's still not the whole truth. Because I know my son has a natural aptitude for learning and understanding complex things at a young age, I work very hard at building on that. I consider it a great honor to have an intelligent child, and I also feel a great responsibility to nurture that intellect.

But still, I don't take it to an extreme. I don't have lesson plans or flash cards, and truth be told I probably don't challenge him as much as I should. Instead, I've realized that the opportunities for teaching and learning are everywhere. That's what we focus on.

Like so many kids his age, Evan is a sponge, absorbing anything and everything around him. There's really no need for flash cards with toddlers, because practically everything in their world is new and exciting and sparks their curiosity. Instead of stressing about structured learning, take the time to explain things as you're doing them, or encourage your children to explore and try new things. You will be delighted by the connections they make and the things they come up with, and you will be inspired to find more ways to light up their little minds.

One of Evan's favorite games: Does it sink or does it float?

Here are some great ways to get your child learning without cracking a book. They may not be able to recite their alphabet or identify hexagons now, but these lessons are being filed away and not forgotten.

ABC's and 123's:

Counting: Although learning to count is a somewhat by-rote experience, children will understand that numbers have values when they see objects being counted instead of just hearing numbers recited. Count out loud when you're divvying up snacks, climbing steps, sorting the dishes, or stacking blocks.

Colors: Identify colors wherever you see them. For example, attach a color (and adjectives) to the name of common objects: big blue truck, yellow block, soft, brown monkey. Give your child a chance to identify colors in the choices they make, like, "Do you want to wear the blue shoes or the brown shoes?"

Letters: In addition to reading to your children (often!), draw attention to letters when you're out and about. Focus on one letter at a time ("Look, that sign has an 'S' on it!") or when something big catches their eye. This is also a great way to distract kids in the car or the store when they're getting cranky: "Can you find me a letter B?" This also works with colors and shapes.

Shapes: Our everyday objects are all made up of simple shapes, which makes the discovery of these shapes in everyday life more exciting. In addition to playing with shape blocks, point out similar shapes when you're unloading the dishwasher ("That plate is a square"), putting away toys ("That football looks like an oval"), and heading outside ("That stop sign is an octagon. It has 8 sides to it.")

Textures: Sensory play is especially important for babies, but with toddlers' burgeoning communication skills, identifying textures by name takes it to the next level. Try naming textures in the grocery store ("That pineapple is scratchy"), when folding laundry ("Your socks are so fuzzy"), and playing outside ("That sidewalk feels hard"). Soon you'll be able to ask: "Does that slide feel smooth or scratchy?" Your toddler will get a kick out of being able to know the answer.

Life Skills:

Making decisions: Like most humans, a child's level of confidence is related to how much others respect and approve of their decisions. Even though giving a toddler the reins seems like a suicide mission, in the long run it will help them be confident in their decisions and themselves and encourage bravery and independence. Not only should you give your children limited choices ("Do you want to eat oatmeal or eggs for breakfast?" or, "Do you want to wear the red shirt or the blue shirt?"), you should praise your children for making decisions ("That was a good choice") so they learn to trust themselves. You can also build on this confidence by challenging your toddler to push a little out of their comfort zone, then praising them with phrases like, "I knew you could do it."

Responsibility: Teaching responsibility is a lifelong task. When it comes down to it, it's one of the most important roles of parenthood. It's never too early to start. Have routines, rules and consequences so that children learn that life has boundaries and we all play a role in making things run smoothly. When there are hard-and-fast rules, it makes it easier for us as parents to both enforce the rules and encourage good behavior, because these rules — and the consequences for breaking them — will always remain constant. Rules like, "We always pick up toys before we go to bed," "We wash hands before/after we eat," and "If you throw your book I will take it away," are easily understood and enforced.

Empathy: Empathy is a skill that is, sadly, fading away. We live in a me-first world, but that doesn't mean that your children have to follow their generation. When you show children that everyone has emotions, good and bad, and that we can be sensitive to others and help them feel better, you are not only empowering them to reach out and be kind, you just might be changing the world. Empathy is not that hard of a skill to learn when you start early. Point out emotions in others ("The baby is sad," "Mommy gets mad when you pull a tantrum"), talk your child through their own emotions ("You are mad that I took away the ball," "You were scared when you couldn't find Mommy"), and help them calm down ("Let's have a cuddle until you feel happy again," "Let's take some big breaths until the mad goes away"). Above all, practice empathy yourself ("I understand, you really want a cookie," "I know you feel mad, it makes me mad too") and model appropriate behavior for your own emotions ("I am so mad I need to stomp my feet," "I feel sad, can you give me a hug?"). Not only are they crucial emotions to teach your child, but it may help you be in touch with your own and motivate you to keep your negative emotions in check.

Enriching young minds:

Asking questions: The best way for a person to learn something is to allow them to find the answers themselves. Asking questions instead of simply explaining everything is a great way to give your child the chance to participate and be creative with their responses ("What will happen if...?" "What do horses eat?"). For young children, giving them the choice between two options can build this skill while still filling them with knowledge ("Is the sky blue or orange?").

Open-ended play: I could write an entire post on "Heuristic" play, which is defined as "offering a group of children, for a defined period of time in a controlled environment, a large number of different kinds of objects and receptacles with which they play freely without adult intervention." Since I'm no expert on the subject I'll just hope that you read up on it, but I will say this: Toys are not the only things that are toys. Children learn so much when they are given an object and their imaginations are allowed to wander, because discovery is a far better teacher than any instructor could ever be. Let your little ones rummage through the kitchen utensils, give them a bunch of empty boxes, let them play in the sand and the dirt and the rocks. This is where their neural pathways are ignited and grow, so let them.

This is, of course, far from an all-inclusive list, but hopefully it will inspire you to try something a little different. So what are your ideas? What have you done with your children that has taught them far more than any flash card?


An article on heuristic play
The Imagination Tree
Play at Home Mom
Growing Play
Kid Activities board on Pinterest

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