Their minds are like sponges that love to soak up all they can — with fun, at the same time.
“Look, Mommy! Come see what I made!” says 4-year-old Connor, running toward his mother and sliding in his socks on the hardwood floor. He’s busting to share his accomplishment — and there’s a lot of that these days. In his room, Connor has assembled a giant fire engine floor puzzle, and he’s overjoyed about it. First, he unwrapped the new puzzle’s cellophane wrapper, then, in the quiet of his room, he sat down to work on his own and completed his project.
“You’re so smart, Connor!” his mom, Melissa Smithson tells him. “Good job!” Smithson says that she has “worked” with Connor since he was an infant.
“It is my greatest joy,” Smithson says. “I love reading to him and encouraging his effort to do things on his own. Not all kids his age are so self-sufficient, but I think just playing with him and prompting him toward independence has helped him to blossom.”
Just like trust is the foundation of babyhood, the preschool years are characterized by interdependence and mastery, says Marianne Neifert, M.D., in her book Dr. Mom’s Prescription for Preschoolers: Seven Essentials for the Formative Years (Zondervan; $14.95). The building blocks of a young child’s formative preschool years — according to Neifert — include social and emotional characteristics, language, self-care, gross motor skills, fine motor skills and intellectual abilities. These “blocks” modify each year as a child’s capabilities change. But not all kids are the same. While children follow the same predictable sequence in early development, each child progresses with learning at his own pace. That’s why play time is learning time.
Helping your child develop and learn is one of the great joys — and challenges — of parenting. But Neifert cautions not to think of it as a chore; think of it as fun for you, too. You can help your child gain ground in the preschool years of 3 to 5 by simply doing fun activities together. Here are several ideas for doing so:
*Create a Special Place
Children love the idea of a secret club house. Some quick and easy suggestions: put a bean bag chair or large pillow in the bathtub, a big box or an old boat. Or, spread a blanket or put an umbrella over the top of two lawn chairs or try an old sheet attached to the ceiling, with a hula hoop sewn into the hem to hold it open. Use the secret club house as a “thinking room” for quiet talk together or just time alone. Says Katie Thompson, Director of Franchise Development for All About Kids, “We have a place like that in our centers. It offers a nice getaway, especially if kids need to be by themselves. It’s an area to cool down, and play alone — a sanctuary for them if they need it.”
*Get All Dressed Up
Children enjoy being “in-character.” You can use real costumes or create a special outfit from yarn, lace, or ribbon for this fun learning time. You can use simple things such as a floppy hat, dad’s slippers, mom’s fancy blouse or Grandma’s apron. If you want to be truly creative, make a paper-bag vest and decorate it with stickers each time your youngster completes a project.
*Build a Learning Kit
Have all the basics: pencils, pens, crayons, markers, tape, glue and scissors. Gather magazines, books on tape and activity pads. Have a large box for “fine and wonderful junk” to bring out the creative genius in your child. Collect cardboard, computer paper, envelopes, junk mail, pop sticks, buttons and other treasures. Also useful are leftover pieces from games and puzzles. You can also check out blue manatee boxes (bluemanateeboxes.com) — a “retro-lutionary” gift for babies and children under 3 years old. Parents can choose from a selection of board books (or choose from a box already designed to a particular theme), and also receive ideas and instruction on how to re-use the box and the packing material for creative play. Founder Dr. John Hutton says, “Our hope is that blue manatee boxes will encourage shared reading and creative play — two of the most important activities for healthy development.”
*Do Fun Things
Encourage independent activities or work together. Have your child draw a picture to go with a story you’ve read to him. Assign a letter each day and cut out pictures that start with that letter and tape them to index cards. Use them to make sentences, find rhymes and for placing cards on household objects that start with the same letter. Organize them into groups like animals, food, toys, furniture or clothes. If you want to introduce your child to more social settings, consider heading over to the Cincinnati Family Enrichment Center (theplaceforfamilies.com). CFEC offers what they call “playful learning” — productive learning through investigation of interesting materials, inventing new uses for those materials and having fun with it all. Beginning this fall, CFEC will also offer specific developmental classes for ages 3 – 5, including FUNdamentals (reading, writing and math exploration), Hand in Hand (developing community kindness and cultural awareness), and Earth Rocks (a focus on our world, bodies and environment).
Keep a weekly record and write each day’s accomplishments on a large chart. “Being able to see it in print is important,” says Thompson. “Kids can put a sticker on the chart when they complete something, and it helps them understand a task from beginning to end.” Once a week, have a special celebration such as a tea party or quick-snack picnic. You can use stickers or draw happy faces on the chart as you review and discuss all the fun things that were done. You can take photos and mail them, along with art work, to Dad at his office, Grandma (near or far) or friends.
Providing these simple opportunities for your preschooler will help get him on the track that learning is fun, and, when you’re engaged, easier!
Valerie Allen is mother of six, author of two books and a psychologist.
3 Years Old
Eager to please and motivated to master what is required, 3-year-olds love receiving recognition for achievements. A spurt of intellectual, social and emotional growth occurs at 3, and there’s an eagerness to act “big.” Three-year-olds love interaction with you, and language is developing at a rapid pace — read together a lot! They have imprecise cutting ability but love to do crafts. Give them beads, dough and clay, puzzles and large-size Legos and blocks. They love sorting by size, color and category.
4 Years Old
Boisterous and exuberant, 4-year-olds will test your energy. They will ask “Why?” endlessly and start to show initiative. Language is growing and letter recognition is getting easier and easier. Use this opportunity by building with ABC blocks. These dexterous creatures can manipulate small objects, cut on a line with scissors and work with stringing beads, finger painting and crafts of all kinds. They understand cause and effect and some can count to 20.
5 Years Old
Restrained, pleasant, self-controlled and focused, 5-year-olds are delightfully positive and eager to please. They are proud of their vast knowledge and enjoy playing organized games in large groups — rules are important, mind you. They talk a lot and enjoy books on favorite subjects. Five-year-olds can tell stories and anticipate what follows. They are skillful at coloring within outlines, but give them plenty of opportunities to create their own works and display them. They are skillful builders and are ready to begin learning about tying shoes. Most can count to 30 or higher.
Source: Dr. Mom’s Prescription for Preschoolers (Zonderban; $14.95)