I recently attended a school board meeting where a gentleman in the gallery stood up and proclaimed that children under the age of five are too young too learn. He believed they don’t have the attention span to sit, listen and take in “academic” information. I just about spit out my mouthful of water (I’m pregnant, so my bottle of water goes with me everywhere). What does he think, that to teach toddlers and preschoolers, we sit them in rowed desks where they listen to lengthy lectures?
Kids can learn, and, in fact, are eager to learn. And their capacity to learn is greatest in their preschool years.
And when we make learning a game, kids associate learning with having fun. People, we aren’t torturing little kids when we teach them the ABCs at 2-years old!
Learning these basic lessons early is becoming more and more important. For better or worse, the academic rigor in the United States is increasing, and school districts are finding that more and more children are under-prepared for kindergarten. While preschools are a prime learning environment for such skills, you can support their learning at home in simple, fun and inexpensive ways.
While I could write a book sharing different toys, games and activities I’ve used to teach my preschool-aged boys, I’m going to share six of my favorites ways to teach early reading, writing and math skills in a 3-part series of posts. (I first wrote a monster post with all six activities, but seriously, it was SO long). These selections are based on my solid understanding of learning theory and child development (at least I’m using that Ph.D. for something), not to mention that kids just find them so much fun!
Like most kids, my boys are hands-on learners. I use activities that engage as many senses as possible, and they almost never involve worksheets or other traditional “school” type activities.
The ages I suggest to introduce the activities are on the early end. Some kids are ready then; others are not. Simply try to introduce your child to the activity at that age, but put it away and try in a couple months if you find your kiddo just isn’t into it.
Along those lines, keep in mind that all kids are different. Some will show interest in learning these sorts of things earlier than others. Never push your kids or make the process frustrating. If they appear disinterested or discouraged, stop and come back to it later. Don’t scold them if they are doing the activity the “wrong” way. Let them explore the materials. Who cares if they place the “c” ball into the “d” tube? As they do so, simply say, “You put the C ball in the D tube,” or say nothing at all. As a mom, one of my greatest desires is for my children to love learning. Pushing them too hard in these early years can create a rocky relationship between your kiddo and the learning process.
Early Reading Skills
The love of reading is one of the greatest gifts we can give our children. I believe the earlier she grasps pre-reading skills, the greater the chance she’ll be a proficient reader by third grade. (Research suggests that children who are proficient readers by third grade have higher rates of school success.)
The goal in these early preschool years is to familiarize children with the alphabet, the order of the letters, the sounds the letters make (phonics), how the letters work together to make simple words, and to recognize rhyming words. Believe me, if they can learn all the characters in Sesame Street, all the Disney princesses, and the names of all the useful engines on the Island of Sodor, your preschooler can grasp these reading concepts!
There are hundreds of fun ways to introduce these skills; here are three winners at my house.
Read Books and Sing the ABCs
When to introduce: Birth
While these aren’t novel activities they are ubber important as foundational pre-reading activities.
By reading just three books each day to your kiddo, your child will have read about 1,000 books by the time she starts kindergarten! This exercise increases vocabulary, listening skills, and provides a basic understanding of phonemic awareness (letters make sounds, sounds make words, etc.), just to name a few benefits.
Sing the ABCs like you would any other lullaby or nursery rhyme. This teaches your child letter names and their order. Make sure to give L-M-N-O their due respect and pronounce each one instead of running them together like one long letter!
Ping Pong ABCs
When to introduce: 2 years old
Like most little boys, Jax loves balls. So leveraging that fascination with a “learning” activity is right up our alley. I used Imagination Tree’s idea as a foundation to create our own version.
- Ping pong balls (I bought mine from [Amazon])
- ABC stickers with upper and lower case letters (or you can write the letters with a Sharpie)
- Sharpie marker
- Toilet paper rolls (without the toilet paper!)
- Shallow plastic container with lid (or a cardboard shoe box)
- Drill and circular drill bit that is the circumference of your cardboard rolls (or an X-ACTO knife if you want to manually cut your holes into a shoe box)
- Small rubber bands
- Write upper and lower case ABCs on the ping pong balls (one letter set per ball) with the Sharpie.
- Stick the letter stickers on the toilet paper rolls. I stuck an upper case letter on one side of the roll and the corresponding lower case letter on the other. (Or write the letters on the rolls with the Sharpie.)
- Determine how many holes you can fit on your box cover, and outline them to use as a cutting guide. (I fit 17 holes in my plastic box.)
- Drill out the holes (or hand cut them if you are using a shoe box).
- Place the rubber bands about 3/4 inch from the bottom of each tube to prevent them from falling through the holes.
How to Play
- Place balls in a bowl or other container.
- Place the tubes into the holes in the storage container. Choose whatever letters you or your child wants. Face the upper or the lower case letters forward.
- Have your child choose a ball, say the letter and its sound, then find the corresponding tube to drop the ball into. While this action doesn’t sound like a rip roaring good time to us adults, little ones love putting things in things. And the fact that it disappears for a moment before reappearing in the bottom of the storage bin makes it that much better!
- Turn the storage container around to do the exercise with the corresponding upper or lower case letters.
- Add blends to your tube choices. Collect more toilet paper rolls, and write blends such as “oo, sh, ch, th” on both the rolls and ping pong balls.
- Have your child build simple three letter words by placing the rolls into the container to spell the word. Then practice the spelling by saying the letter and sound as the balls are dropped into the tubes.
- Make number tubes and balls and do the activity with numbers.
- Put all the balls in the storage container and take off the top. Fill the bottom with a small amount of water (just so the balls float). Using a small fishing net, have the child scoop out the balls while saying the letter and sound and replacing them back into the bowl.
When to introduce: 2 years old
This is very similar to Ping Pong ABCs. I use lots of alternative ways to teach letters and sounds (so Jax doesn’t get tired of the same ol’ same ol’), and I love that this exercise strengthens the muscles he will need for writing.
- Egg carton
- Wooden circle letters (I bought mine at Hobby Lobby)
- Hot glue gun
- Small ice cream scoop
- Hot glue two of the same wooden circle letters to the top and bottom of each pom. This allows the poms to sit on a table so your child can see the letter. Without the bottom letter, the poms tip over.
How to Play
- Have your child use the ice cream scoop and/or the tongs to pick up a letter pom and place it into the egg carton. Encourage her to say the letter and its sound as she transfers it. Young children will enjoy the ice cream scoop, while older kids will like the challenge of the tongs.
- Once the carton is filled with poms, have her repeat the process while emptying it.
- Purchase a second set of wooden circle letters. Have your child place one letter into each space in the egg carton. Then encourage her to match the ABC poms to the letters in the carton.
- Purchase wooden circle numbers and practice number recognition with the same activity.
- Have your child spell her name and short words in the carton.
When to introduce: 3 years old
I adapted this exercise from a recommendation from Teaching Momma.
- Small craft storage container (I bough mine at Wal-Mart.)
- White card stock
- Alphabet stickers — upper and lower case
- Stickers or printed pictures of objects that begin with A-Z and that rhyme
- School glue
- Cut several squares of white card stock so they will fit neatly into the compartments of your storage container. I didn’t want mine to fall perfectly to the bottom of each compartment because they would be too difficult for little fingers to take in and out. Mine were a bit larger so they fit propped up diagonally in each compartment.
- Make a card for each upper and lower case letter with the letter stickers (or hand write them).
- Make a card with a picture that starts with each letter of the alphabet. I chose pictures that I know Jax likes (favorite animals, utility trucks, etc.)
- Make card pairs with rhyming words (e.g., rat, cat)
How to Play
- Present your child with the upper-case letters and have her choose as many as will fit across the top row of your storage container.
- Ask your child to find the matching lower-case letter and place it below the corresponding upper-case letter.
- If you child is ready, ask her to find pictures that start with each of the letters and place them below the corresponding letters in the container.
- For older preschoolers: Starting with an empty container, present the rhyming cards to your child and ask her to choose one of each set and place them across the top row of the storage container.
- Now ask her to find the picture with the rhyming word for each, and place it below its match.
- Using the picture cards that have pictures of simple three and four letter words, ask your child to place the picture in the container and spell the word with the letter cards.
- Have your child spell her name with the letter cards.
- If you have small objects from Play Mobile sets or other games, use the objects in place of the picture cards. A small tiger from the Play Mobile zoo set can be used to match with the “T” letter cards. Using the toys vs. the cards can be a fun change for your little hands-on learner.
Encourage your kiddo to create her own ways of playing with these games too. While structured fun certainly helps her acquire skills she’ll need for school, open-ended play is even more important. It nurtures creativity, self-confidence and problem solving skills, just to name a few benefits! And, don’t be afraid to try your hand at these activities. You might not be able to help yourself.
See my posts on preschool math and handwriting activities here: Part 2: Math | Part 3: Handwriting. If you enjoyed this post and want to hear more from Jax in the Box), follow the blog by adding your email address on the right-hand sidebar. Thanks for reading!