Wisdom From a Preschool Teacher

By Carol Stock Kranowitz

Some of the most important skills your child needs at school come from lessons that begin at home. A mother tells me how excited she is about her toddler’s “educational” computer game. Just click the mouse and presto: One, two, three oranges bound into a bucket. Isn’t that a fabulous way to learn counting? What is my opinion, as a preschool teacher?

“How about giving him a bucket and three oranges?” I ask. “Then he can touch and hold them, smell them, toss them, and enjoy a real experience.” “That seems so old-fashioned!” she says. Maybe this is true. But while times change, children don’t. They still need many of the fun-yet-practical experiences that kids have always relished. They need to run and play outside, take risks, and try again when they stumble. And they still need thoughtful, available parents.

Want to raise a confident, competent child? The kind of kid who loves to play and learn? Who thinks independently while still considering others’ points of view? In 25 years of working with young children and their families, I’ve found these 10 tips most helpful for raising can-do kids.

  1.  Provide concrete experiences. Kids are sensory-motor learners: Sensations come in, and motor (movement) responses go out. Therefore, playing with an orange engages most of the senses and encourages your child to try different motor responses. He can squeeze and sniff it, roll it across the floor, play catch with you, and so on. You can enrich your child’s play by providing meaningful sensory-motor experiences. For example, furnish footwear to play Shoe Store. Let your child sort shoes by shape, size, texture, and how they fasten. Sequence them (sneaker, pump, boot; sneaker, pump, boot). Try them all on. Box and stack them. Take turns being Customer and Salesperson.
  2. Get physical with your child. Because vigorous play is vital, you need to be there every day, if possible, to encourage your child to climb, jump, swing, and slide. While you’re at it, roughhouse with your child — especially your girl! Get on all fours and play Horsey. Also try Up and Over: Hold her hands, let her scale your legs, and flip her over and down. Play Helicopter: Hold her at the waist or underarms and swing her through the air. Learning and active movement go together. For instance, the first time your child plays Horsey, she may feel unsteady. She must judge how to stay balanced, how hard to clench her knees, and how not to choke you! Subsequently, she’ll be more confident and relaxed because she has integrated countless body-brain connections. Someday, she’ll generalize these lessons about balance and body position when she mounts a real pony or bicycle.
  3. Get his muscles moving. Fine muscles, which mature gradually, control the hands, fingers, toes, lips, tongue, and eyes. To encourage small-muscle development, first you need to get your child’s larger muscles working. “Every child must organize large muscles before concentrating on complex small-motor skills,” says Patricia Lemer, executive director of Developmental Delay Resources in Bethesda, MD. “Before sitting and writing, children require many opportunities to climb on ladders, toss balls, and paint broad strokes while standing at an easel.” For little kids, think big: large Legos, foot-long trucks, life-size baby dolls, thick paintbrushes, chubby chalk and crayons. After preschoolers practice manipulating big toys and tools, they can graduate to smaller ones, such as Matchbox cars and watercolor brushes.
  4. Encourage critical thinking. Kids give thoughtful answers when we ask thoughtful questions. Suppose your child is curious about a cartoon her schoolmates discuss. She wants to watch TV, but you’d prefer to read stories. Relent; in the long run, watching a mindless show is less damaging than feeling left out by classmates. But seize the opportunity to guide her into thinking critically. Watch the show together and ask questions: Would the hero make a nice friend? How does he treat less powerful characters? What helps him succeed — fancy equipment or his own wits? Do not accept “I dunno.” Get an opinion!
  5. Let your child speak for himself. You and your son go to the ice cream parlor. The familiar clerk says, “Hi!” Your son freezes. Before you jump in with, “Say hi to Mike,” give him time to respond. A child capable of speaking may simply need a few extra beats. If Mike inquires what flavor your son wants, don’t give the answer yourself. You may not know your child’s preference, and you weren’t asked the question anyway. Producing language on demand is a prerequisite for school success. A child must learn to respond to direct questions and ask for what she wants. If you do the talking, the danger for your child is “learned helplessness.” Why should he make an effort if you always take over? Model friendly conversation to encourage her to be responsive and considerate.
  6. Encourage good reading habits. When you show an interest in books, you teach your child that reading is a lifetime pleasure. Let her catch you at it. Talk about what you’re learning from the book. A preschooler doesn’t need details about front-page news or the plots of bestsellers, but she can benefit from understanding that all kinds of challenges beset all kinds of folks. Children learn empathy from their parents. Discuss how problems may be overcome when people care about one another and work together.
  7. Champion chores. Children love and need work. It activates the large muscles in their arms, legs, and torso, puts the brain in gear, and prepares them to pay attention to the surrounding world. The easier we make life for our kids, the harder their lives will be. Without sufficient motor activities, they may have low stamina, poor muscle tone, and scant experience in accomplishing simple tasks. Insufficient movement can also lead to poor sleep patterns and appetites. Having your child help with chores is a great first step. He can brush the dog, wash the car, push the stroller and vacuum cleaner, and haul nonbreakables (like rice and canned goods) from grocery store to car and from car to kitchen.
  8. Make mealtime memorable. Sit down and share a daily meal. With you as a model for mealtime decorum, your child can learn self-help skills like cutting and pouring as well as more complex life skills like patience, sharing, and participating in the give and take of conversation. Should conversation get stuck, ask each family member to relate one incident of the day. Or say, “Tell us something funny (confusing, scary, incredible) that happened today.” Make sure that everyone has a turn to listen and comment. When everyone eats together, your child is nourished physically and emotionally, so she feels a sense of belonging and learns to be mindful of the needs of others: socially, so she’s able to function in a group; and cognitively, so she learns to meet challenges and plan solutions.
  9. Honor your child’s interests. Say your son is fond of earthworms. He rescues and carries them home in paper cups. And let’s say you hate worms. Before you say, “Yuck,” look at his face. Is he emotionally invested in these creatures? Curious and compassionate? Eager to share his thoughts with you? This is bad? No, this is wonderful!
  10. Make fun a priority. Play helps children learn. It stretches the imagination, encourages thinking skills, strengthens motor coordination, and enhances social development. Our daily charge should be “Have fun!” not “Be good!” Fun, like manners, empathy, and the desire to read, begins at home. If you know and show how to have fun, chances are your child will too. Go all out when you dress up for Halloween. Play make-believe games, like “I’m the kid and you’re the Mommy.” Celebrate Backward Day; eat dessert first. Switch the initial sounds of words to create “spoonerisms,” such as “Please heed the famster” or “Remember to toss your fleeth” or “All ready for proccer sactice?” Because they are old enough to get it, preschoolers are tickled by this.

Make music together. Music restores order, improves communication, and is one of life’s greatest pleasures. And it’s inexpensive: Rhythm instruments include spoons, pots and pans, oatmeal-box drums, pencil “mallets,” and cigar-box guitars (sturdy boxes encircled with rubber bands). Inexpensive kazoos and slide whistles can add to the silliness. Beat a simple rhythm and invite your child to join in. Take turns following each other’s beat. Change from simple to complex, from slow to fast, from loud to soft. Making music is especially fun when you and your child actively make it happen.

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