The Building Blocks of Learning

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The preschool years provide a remarkable opportunity for early learning. Like absorbent sponges, this age group is motivated by fun activities that are simple to provide.

“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 to 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.

Get All Dressed Up

Children enjoy being “in-character.”  You can use real costumes or create a special outfit from yarn, lace, or ribbons 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 left over pieces from games and puzzles and mismatched socks.

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.

Have Rewards

Keep a weekly record and write each day’s accomplishments on a large chart. 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!


preschool profiles

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 are ready to begin learning about tying shoes. Most can count to 30 or higher.

Source: Dr. Mom’s Prescription for Preschoolers (Zondervan; $14.95).

Valerie Allen is a mother of six and a school psychologist. She is also the author of two books, a frequent speaker and a freelance writer.

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