This blog includes ideas and strategies parents can use to develop young minds and foster growth.
Check out our new companion workbook, The Complete Preschool Workbook & Activities: Ages 3 – 5! It is now available for purchase on amazon.com.
Click on the WORKBOOK link in the menu for more information.
All the Shapes Around Us!
When kids draw, play with objects, and look at pictures, they begin to learn about geometry—which is simply the study of patterns, shapes, sizes, positions, and spatial relationships.
An important first step to any geometric or educational toy is to first give it to your child and let her explore and discover without any direction or input. Observe what she does with it, how she holds it, and how long it keeps her attention. An infant chewing on a plastic colored ring is exposed to important information. What does it look like? How does it feel? Does it make a noise?
As she grows older, you can ask open-ended questions about what she sees, notices, or feels. Guide her to try different things before explicitly teaching a certain concept. Additionally, don’t be too quick to assist or correct your child when manipulating objects. Let her discover mistakes and solve problems. For instance, if she is trying to stack rings in order based on size, but puts them out of order, make guiding comments only after she plays for a while.
Infants, toddlers, and preschoolers start to learn about geometry simply by recognizing different shapes. Toddlers won’t be able to understand specific properties and relationships among shapes, but they will compare everyday objects. In other words, they can identify a rectangle and recognize that a door is in the shape of a rectangle, but won’t be able to discuss the differences between a rectangle and a triangle.
Kids closer to four or five years old will begin to understand the basic properties of geometric shapes and develop the ability to compare and contrast objects. They will be able to distinguish between two- and three-dimensional shapes, learn vocabulary related to differing properties, and identify spatial relationships. The specific geometric concepts children must learn include shapes and spatial reasoning.
The Basic Shapes
Introduce your infant to various geometric shapes early and often. Create or purchase an inexpensive set of basic objects including circles, squares, triangles, hexagons, ovals, and stars. Begin by stating the name of each shape. Through regular exposure, your toddler will eventually be able to name them on his own.
Once your child is developmentally able (usually at around four or five years old), compare, contrast, and draw various shapes. See if he can trace over an existing picture. If able to do that successfully, encourage him to draw shapes on his own. Playing with sidewalk chalk is a fun way to develop this ability.
Provide time for your toddler to play with, manipulate, and rotate the shapes. Explain how some always look the same in different positions (circles and squares) while others might look a little different when they are rotated (hearts can be upside down). In addition, ask your child to sort and classify a set of multiple shapes and stress that a square will always be a square regardless of its orientation, color, or size.
Once he has mastered the introductory shapes, slowly introduce others, such as rectangles, parallelograms, octagons, and pentagons. As you introduce new two-dimensional shapes, continue to name, compare, contrast, sort, trace, classify, and draw them.
There are also many free preschool apps on your phone where your children can explore the shapes. Check them out; many are fun for kids!
What Does It Mean to Be Smart?
Parents will help children succeed if they stress two types of learning. The first type is considered academic learning. This includes knowing the ABCs, counting, identifying common geometric shapes, and learning other basic facts such as color names and body parts. To best teach academic knowledge, we should take an interdisciplinary approach. For instance, kids can start to learn letters while talking about scientific concepts, or they can learn how to count when reading a book.
The second type of learning involves the development of cognitive functions, which include problem solving, critical thinking skills, and the ability to reason, process information, and make good decisions. You will see that we stress both types of learning in this book. We develop cognitive functions while we incorporate engaging activities and teach subject-specific content.
Kids who are able to learn on their own tend to be successful in the classroom. You can help children take control of their learning by helping them to create and define goals. Think about the tools needed to accomplish the learning tasks, and then monitor your preschoolers’ thinking and progress. Offer guidance, encourage them to evaluate their actions, and come up with possible alternatives if something isn’t working as planned.
When our daughter was three years old, she wanted to make a fort with chairs, a box, and a blanket. The blanket kept falling off the chair (thus ruining the fort) so we asked her to think of strategies and other objects she could use to keep the fort together. She brought in an additional chair and some pillows and she was eventually able to build a pretty solid fort. Ask your kids what they want to accomplish and then let them take initiative with their own strategies and solutions.
You will build self-confidence by attributing your children’s success to hard work, by following through with a good plan, and by getting excited about their achievements. Praise them in a way that highlights their ability to learn, think, and grow. Be specific with feedback like “I think your fort worked well because you put a pillow on top to hold the blanket in place.”
Comment on the thought processes and specifically state why something was effective. However, it is important to avoid over-praising. Kids will develop confidence only when praise is warranted. Focus on their strengths, provide opportunities to improve on weaknesses, and if you are intentional with your words, this type of focus will translate to greater academic success later in school.
How a Child Develops
What is usually the first word a baby will utter? If you think it is either “ma ma” or “da da,” you are probably correct. And there are two reasons for this. First, because babies are developmentally capable of saying these two sounds. Second, because these are typically the words they hear most frequently early in life.
Infants, toddlers, and preschoolers all develop at different times. Just as some babies begin to crawl earlier than others, some toddlers will learn numbers, letters, and other cognitive functions more quickly. In fact, developmental psychologists believe young children are often forced to learn concepts before they are ready, which could actually harm them in the long term.
For that reason, try not to compare your kids’ abilities with others or force learning when they aren’t measuring up. Instead, create an environment where each individual will grow at his or her own pace.
The Power of Culture
One of the most powerful ways to develop infant, toddler, and preschoolers’ social skills, cognitive abilities, and personal attributes is through experience and the culture of their home. Plenty of interaction with parents, relatives, friends, and other children can be an effective way of developing skills and intellectual functions.
This was definitely true for our two-year-old. Because we were providing child care to a friend’s toddler who was a year older, our own child’s vocabulary expanded greatly. She was regularly interacting with someone who had a much more developed vocabulary.
The Montessori Method
Thousands of teachers and preschools in the United States utilize a strategy known as the Montessori Method. These Montessori schools are popular—and effective—for a couple of reasons. First, the teachers value the importance of each individual child. They adapt instruction based on each student’s needs and previous learning experiences.
Second, after providing initial structure and direction, the schools give preschoolers the freedom to explore and learn at their own pace. Young kids have an innate desire to learn and master skills, and adults simply need to provide the resources and tools to foster growth.
Perhaps more than any other time period, children from birth through age six absorb a ton of information. Therefore, let your children explore their surroundings through repeated exercises and activities.
Since young children have brains like sponges, do you encourage or discourage the seemingly nonstop “why” questions they ask? It was determined that young children with inquisitive minds ask an average of 76 questions per hour. If you do the math, that means they ask about 900 questions every day!
It is important to understand that the questioning is a critical process in their cognitive development. Each time kids ask a “why” question they are probing, making connections, developing understandings, identifying patterns, and learning new concepts.
Thinking Mathematically in our Technological Age
Teaching kids the numbers, shapes, and how to count is critical, but perhaps the most important thing you can do to prepare your child for math is to get them to think mathematically. This includes teaching “life skills” such as identifying patterns, exploring, comparing and contrasting, problem solving, and making sense of numbers.
Use people, everyday objects, and numbers to help your child sort and recognize patterns.
- When toddlers put toys away or return clean silverware to the drawer, they develop an ability to sort.
- Make patterns and fun designs with toys and stickers.
Explore math-related topics
Begin to expose your children to concepts such as measurement, money, puzzles, and time.
- Use a tape measure to determine the height of family members and of your child’s doll collection. When we started doing this with our daughter at age three, she had no idea what a measurement indicated, but she started to learn to put one end of the tape measure by our feet and then extend the other to our heads.
- Complete simple jigsaw puzzles (which will also help develop spatial awareness and reasoning).
- Explore and use measuring tools such as scales, cups, and teaspoons. Whenever you bake cookies or cakes with your toddler, use that opportunity to introduce different forms of measurement.
- Talk about concepts related to time. What does tomorrow or in a few minutes mean? What’s the difference between morning and night? How long is a week or a month? Indeed, these concepts are pretty abstract for preschoolers and pretty difficult for them to comprehend, but exposure is still beneficial.
Compare and contrast
Make comparisons with the many objects that are a part of your toddler’s world. Compare the size of animals such as mice, squirrels, and deer. Compare the size of different people in terms of who is taller or shorter. Contrast heavy items with lighter items. Also, it would be helpful to teach your preschooler to describe the relative position of different objects. Is the square above or below the triangle? Is the car inside or outside of the garage? Is the pine tree in front of or behind the house?
Teach your child to solve problems with everyday tasks. Whether your little one is trying to figure out how to button a shirt or open a Tupperware container, allow him to struggle with the task a little. For sure, offer suggestions, but give him a chance to solve the problem on his own first. Encourage him to stay calm and avoid getting frustrated. Ask helpful questions and discuss different strategies. When preschoolers are able to solve everyday problems, they develop a skill that will carry over into math problems they might face in kindergarten and beyond.
Make sense of numbers
Nurture the development of number sense, which you can do with children as early as age two. In math education, number sense is defined as a person’s ability to understand number relationships, use numbers in everyday situations, and make sense of what numbers and symbols mean. You help develop number sense when you:
- Use visual images, such as pictures or symbols, to represent numbers. Seeing a pile of 5 pennies might help kids to understand that 5 is a smaller number as compared to a pile of 25 pennies.
- Encourage math conversations. Continually ask questions such as, “How many spoons?” “Which is more?” “How do you know?” “What’s one more?” “What’s one less?” “About how many steps to the door?” “How long do you think the drive will take?”
- Use the five frames (we included an example of this in one of the counting activities).
- Let your children share their thoughts and strategies when exposed to a variety of math related experiences.
When kids are able to develop number sense, the benefits are many. It will promote confidence in their math abilities, help them to flexibly think about math problems, and it will lay a foundation for the more advanced mathematical ideas they will face in high school.
Character is Higher Than Intellect
Many would agree that character education is a crucial element of school preparedness.
In education and the workplace today there is an increased focus on developing skills to help people effectively function in their environment and interact well with others. These skills are known as “soft skills” and they include one’s personal attributes, behaviors, character traits, and attitudes.
Yes, teaching students math, science, and reading content is imperative. But teaching them to follow directions, sit quietly, and be patient is also essential. When parents raise kind, selfless, gritty, and obedient kids they will successfully and positively contribute to their classroom community. Elementary school educators agree that children are more likely to succeed in school when parents are intentional about developing these types of behaviors.
Just as we teach kids to count to ten, balance on one foot, identify the sounds of letters, and draw a straight line, we can mold and shape character early in life. Developing a work ethic, the ability to persevere, and other similar soft skills will help in all arenas of life. Children will be able to more effectively interact with people at a family picnic, at church, on a team, and later as an employee.
Here are some of the key character traits that will lead to success in school and in the workplace.
- Strong work ethic
- Curious mind
- Kindness & selflessness
- Ability to follow directions
- Grit & perseverance
- Follow the Golden Rule
So incorporate practices into your family’s everyday events that nurture healthy dispositions and interpersonal skills. Just as you develop your kids’ cognitive abilities, develop character and you will foster a readiness to learn in any setting, including a structured classroom.
Let Your Kids be Imaginative!
How are you allowing your young children to express their creativity and artistic talent?
There is a difference between completing a craft and doing a true visual art project. Crafts tend to have a predetermined end result. While there are benefits when you do crafts with your little ones, it is also important to allow for their own freedom of expression. Let them create whatever they want on occasion and try not to always be concerned about the end product. Instead, give them a chance to use their imaginations and make their own decisions.
The process is important and kids will learn through experimentation. Therefore, ask open-ended questions such as, “How can we make an animal?” “What materials would you like to use?” “What colors would you like to include?” “What if we used this design?” “Do you want to create a pattern?” When children are able to make these types of choices, they will be more likely to enhance their creative abilities.
Some of the arts include drawing, painting, coloring, printing, sculpting Play-Doh, creating a collage, using textiles, modeling, printmaking, stringing beads, and just about any other construction. When your children engage in these activities, teach related vocabulary and talk about the basic elements and principles of art, including:
- Shapes: Connect artwork with math terms. Talk about symmetry or include geometric shapes such as rectangular, circular, linear, or curvy designs. It is helpful to use an anchor chart that kids can use as a reference. (An anchor chart is a graphic representation displaying the various shapes.)
- Texture: Some creations will be soft and fuzzy, while others will be coarse or smooth. Connect your child’s creations with the senses and include many different words to describe texture.
- Color: The primary colors include red, yellow, and blue. Secondary colors are an equal mixture of two primary colors, resulting in green, purple, and orange. When you use a lot of complementary colors (such as red with green), you can create a vibrant look. Contrast light colors with dark, bright with soft, and point out the warm colors of a beautiful sunset or other images.
- Space: Create and examine both two- and three-dimensional shapes. Discuss elements such as foreground and background, perspective, and illusion.
- Emotion: When looking at pieces of art, what thoughts come to mind? Is it calming? Is it vibrant and cheery? Do the lines on a face indicate anger, sadness, or happiness?
- Structure: Does the art work rely on repetition? Is it balanced? Is it proportional or symmetrical? What types of patterns are visible?
Make connections between art and other subjects. You can easily connect art with math by talking about geometric shapes or counting objects in a photograph. You will automatically connect it with literacy as you include new art-related vocabulary words. There is a lot of beauty in science, and you can point out the symmetry, shape, array of color, and texture of a flower while introducing its biological structure.
Do these things and you will indeed help to develop imaginative little minds!
Creating a Culture of Learning
Possibly the most important factor to a child’s cognitive and social-emotional development is the culture and climate you create in your home. It isn’t time at preschool, or hours of schooling once they reach elementary school.
In actuality, children spend most of their time with parents, siblings, and friends. If you run the numbers, from birth to age 18, kids are in school only about 15 − 20% of their life. They are sleeping for quite a bit of time, which then leaves about 40 − 50% of life with family and community members.
Here are the top things caregivers can do to create an environment of growth.
- Be aware of peer interactions. If your toddler’s friend screams when she doesn’t get something, then your toddler will likely adopt a similar behavior.
- Allow for creativity.
- Incorporate play with a variety of materials (e.g., rocks, sticks, toys, dolls, clay, or many other objects you possess in and around your home).
- Continually comment on the actions you observe: “I like how you shared.” “Take turns with that toy.” “Let her play with that first.” “You made a kind choice.” “I like how you asked for my advice.”
- Ask questions: Who, what, when, where, how, why, what if?
- Point out positive and negative behaviors.
- Make connections between previous experiences and new knowledge.
- Explain what good behavior looks like and then encourage proper actions.
- Encourage your little ones to seek assistance from adults when appropriate.
Kids will learn by what they hear and see, so we would be remiss if we didn’t stress the importance of limiting television viewing and screen time. Many shows do not deal with social-emotional issues properly, and your children often develop inappropriate social responses because of what they watch. If you do allow your child to watch television programs, then be sure to prescreen them to ensure age-appropriate content.
There are many broadcasts that actually teach proper social behavior, and they will be of greater benefit if parents talk with children regarding what is seen on the screen. Furthermore, learning is solidified when caregivers connect television programs with everyday experiences. For example, we once saw an exhibit on butterflies at our local nature center. Later, while watching a documentary on the same topic, we were able to tie together what we learned at the exhibit with the documentary.
Identify what is developmentally appropriate by continually providing different experiences and by teaching your young kids new ideas. Even if they aren’t ready to master a concept or skill, try it anyway. Oftentimes, simple exposure (without striving for mastery) is beneficial. Be patient. While some abilities and skills will develop more gradually, some will simply emerge at a given—and perhaps surprising—time. Support from and interaction with parents, siblings, family members, and friends will be the conduit through which children’s cognitive abilities and social emotional growth will strengthen during the early years.
Setting Your Little One up for Success
Parents have an incredible opportunity to help children learn foundational knowledge and skills during the first several years of life. All infants (0 − 12 months), toddlers (12 − 36 months), and preschool-aged children (3 − 5 years) are acquiring, organizing, and processing information. Caregivers simply need to nurture these naturally occurring processes.
By incorporating thoughtful activities and providing opportunities for growth, you will develop confident and knowledgeable kids who will succeed in school. Without a doubt, your involvement and life experiences can increase your children’s cognitive development, abilities, and skills.
How do babies, toddlers, and preschoolers learn?
Simply put, babies, toddlers, and preschoolers learn through interactive play. With young children, play and learning go hand-in-hand and active engagement will foster development in all areas—cognitively, physically, socially, and emotionally. For example, kids learn problem solving skills while playing with blocks. They learn about science when playing in the sand on the beach. They learn fine motor skills when dressing dolls.
In fact, developmental psychologists have determined that when caregivers play with their toddlers and stimulate their minds through discussion and experiences, children are likely to earn higher grades in math and reading when they are in the fifth grade.
So provide as many different experiences as you can for your children. Perform investigations together about color, size, texture, and weight of objects. Schedule play dates with other parents. Be a part of a group to develop a sense of belonging. Provide opportunities to help and serve others.
Have many conversations and ask questions about your child’s environment. What does she observe? What does she like? What does she dislike? How was her day? What was her favorite part of the day? These types of discussions will help to intellectually engage and challenge your preschooler.
Play with your young children, create experiences, and constantly engage in discussion with them and you will indeed set them up for success!
Literacy: Laying the Foundation
Reading to your young child each day is one of the most effective things you can do. The amount of learning that takes place while your little one sits cuddled in your lap in the afternoon, or before bed, is remarkable. Before she is even aware of what is happening, you are teaching her how to hold a book and turn the pages correctly. You are communicating information about written symbols and story structure.
Learning to read is a continuum. You build knowledge every time you read to and interact with your little one. Every experience and every conversation moves him closer to becoming a reader. Even toddlers who look at a simple book that states “I see a tree, I see a book, I see a heart,” where the pictures match the words on each page, is engaging in valuable pre-reading skills. They are recognizing how letters and words have meaning, and pictures can provide clues.
So as soon as your child is born, create a culture that values language development. Interact with your newborn. Regularly talk with her, read and share fun stories, and display letters and words around your home. Do these things and you will indeed begin to lay a foundation.
Here’s an activity to get you started: Make your own ABC book using construction paper and pictures. Find a bunch of pictures in a magazine (or print them from the Internet) beginning with each letter sound. Use uppercase letters and glue the corresponding pictures onto the construction paper. Then bind all the pages with staples or string!
Science: Explore & Discover the World
Children begin to engage with their environment and develop basic understandings of scientific phenomena as early as the infant months. Here are some ways you can create early science experiences with your kids:
- Read children’s books about science.
- Use pictures that represent scientific ideas. For example, pictures of the human body, trees, and flowers are all fun to show babies.
- Engage in science experiments. When you plant flowers, observe bugs, and roll balls, you can have science discussions.
- Connect everyday experiences with scientific ideas. When you take a stroll in the park, you can listen to the birds and talk about the pretty color of the sky.
- Talk about how things often change. Plants and people grow, the wind blows the leaves off the trees in the fall, and the moon looks different at night.
Exposure to these types of scientific concepts during the early years will create a foundation with which kids will build upon for subsequent development!
Here’s another fun science activity for toddlers: Use crayons or colored pencils and draw pictures of each season with your child. Be detailed and descriptive as you draw and color. Here are some ideas…
- Summer: Green leaves and grass, bright blue skies with a few puffy white clouds, people outside playing, farms growing corn and beans.
- Fall: Leaves turning colors on the trees and falling to the ground, pumpkins on the porch, wind blowing flags, grass turning brown.
- Winter: Bare trees, lawns and bushes covered with snow, footprints in the snow, snowmen in the yard, people dressed up in warm clothes.
- Spring: Flowers blooming with many colors, grass turning green again, birds flying through the air, dark clouds with rain and rainbows.
Math: It is as Easy as 1, 2, 3
When can you begin talking about numbers and geometry with your little ones? Children as young as 18 months old begin to learn fundamental concepts. They may not develop complete understandings that young, but their little brains are able to begin to think about math concepts.
To help build a foundation, one of the most important things you can do is foster a positive attitude. In fact, according to one survey, about 30% of the American population would rather clean toilets than do math problems! Be careful not to pass on this mindset or any of your own phobias.
Instead, talk about how math is useful and worthwhile and then work diligently to instill confidence. Start during the infant years to build math knowledge and you will indeed raise a math genius.
Here’s an activity that will help your toddler with number recognition and teach one-to-one correspondence!
Create, print, and cut out two sets of cards, one with the numerals and the other with the corresponding number of items on it. Mix them up, and then ask your child to match the picture card with its numeral while laying them in order. Using different shapes will help teach geometry, too.
Education Begins at Birth
From birth to age six, children have an extraordinary capacity to learn. Our book, Education Begins at Birth: A Parent’s Guide to Preparing Infants, Toddlers, and Preschoolers for Kindergarten, offers advice to parents on how to maximize potential and raise smart kids. If you are a parent of an infant, toddler, or preschooler, this is the perfect book to help you foster your little one’s intellectual, physical, emotional, and social development. It includes essential tips, strategies, and practical things you can do to:
- Create early educational experiences in your home.
- Encourage discovery through play and investigation.
- Nurture a life-long learner.
- Establish an environment that values growth.
- Inspire curiosity and creativity.
Jeff and Annie Wiesman teach parents how to create a language-rich environment where young children learn beginning concepts in math, science, literacy, social studies, and the arts. They include a wide variety of engaging activities and a detailed description of what you should teach at different developmental stages. Use the ideas included in the book and you will help your kids develop essential skills for success in school and beyond.
Available to purchase at www.amazon.com
Our companion workbook, The Complete Preschool Workbook & Activities: Ages 3 – 5, is also available at amazon.com.