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Teaching Preschoolers with Games

By Carolyn Forte

Humans were created to learn. Every child is a learning machine that can only be slowed through the most strenuous efforts of adults. Unfortunately, that is exactly what some well-meaning adults do to children in a misguided effort to “enhance” learning. The effect of the current effort to hurry children into advanced arenas of academic learning is fast approaching crisis status. Few young parents realize that the academic schedule of school today is a full two years ahead of the schools of 60 years ago. We are asking first graders to do tasks formerly expected of third graders. The demands on third graders are similar to a fifth grade curriculum two generations ago. To make matters immeasurably worse, tasks and concepts once reserved for high school (algebra, probability, Cartesian geometry, literary analysis) are now required of primary age children.

This means that youngsters entering Kindergarten, where I once taught children to use scissors and wield a paintbrush, are often expected to be reading! For most children, this is very stressful if not impossible. They are also asked to use and understand abstract math and literary concepts once introduced in ninth grade! To add physical injury to this assault on their cognition, they are required to sit still for long periods of time and if they cannot, they are dosed with the chemical equivalent of amphetamines until they can. The result of these kinds of developmentally inappropriate expectations and intervetions is that many pre-school age children are labeled as having some sort of learning or emotional disability. To avoid this and  learning to maximize learning, children need a great variety of age-appropriate activities using all their senses and involving the whole body. All replicable early childhood research highlights the need for age-appropriate learning tasks. Dr. David Elkind writes in Miseducation: Preschoolers at Risk:

“When we instruct children in academic subjects, or in swimming, gymnastics, or ballet, at too early an age, we miseducate them; we put them at risk for short-term stress and long-term personality damage for no useful purpose. There is no evidence that such early instruction has lasting benefits, and considerable evidence that it can do lasting harm.”

Fortunately, the average home and yard (or nearby park) is a wonderful source of ready-made learning activities and games to give your child the developmental foundation for solid and lasting learning. Your toddler’s fascination with every little bug and flower gives you the opportunity to comment on the current find and enhance his vocabulary development. You don’t need to spout technical information, just speak good English in full sentences and respond to his comments or gestures in a warm and loving manner. You have just given him an English lesson and a bit of biology. The more you talk and sing to (and with) your children, the more they will learn.

Young children love to mimic whatever those around them are doing. My two year old learned to wash the dishes alongside me because she wanted to do whatever I was doing. The same trait can be used to teach your young child to count (or recite the ABCs or a Bible verse). I counted every time I could think of an excuse to do so and soon my daughter was doing it too. Of course, she made lots of mistakes and took offense if I corrected her, but I found that if I just kept doing it correctly in her hearing, she soon corrected herself because she really wanted to do it like Mommy.

Counting, however, does not necessarily indicate that your child understands what the numbers recited mean. That will come little by little as you count and work with things at appropriate times throughout the day. For instance, you can count dishes as you put them in the dishwasher, count books you are taking back to the library, count carrot pieces as you put them on his plate, count dots on the dice as you play a game, etc. Talking with your child as you move about the house teaches him language in a way that the TV or an iPad cannot. Remember too that children learn much, much more when they are a part of the conversation and have some role in the activity.

Preschool children need lots of movement and sensory stimulation like running, jumping, climbing, swinging, touching, tasting and smelling different things. They need to hear and identify sounds and talk about what they notice. All of these make connections in their growing brains. Look for ways your child can participate in the things you do every day. When you are cleaning his room, give him a little bag or basket and tell him to see how many toys he can pick up and fit in it. Help him count them and get excited about it. Enthusiasm enhances everything including learning. You can make a game of picking up, by hiding a sticker or Post-It on one of the items to be picked up before you start.  Then tell him the sticker counts for a little treat when the job is done.  The treat doesn’t have to be food or a toy; it can be a storybook, a game or a walk outside.

Music, poetry and rhythm provide important mental stimuli. If you don’t know any musical games, the Wee Sing series has several CD & book sets of songs with games, movement and finger plays. All these help your child’s brain grow neural pathways in a variety of ways that will enhance learning. Rhythmic movement develops balance, coordination, spatial awareness, visual (distance and depth) perception and much more. All of these are important precursors to reading and writing.

Hand-eye co-ordination, essential for handwriting skills, is developed when your child plays with clay, finger paint, crayons, paint, papier mache, scissors and other art materials.  Does anyone make mud pies and roads in the dirt any more?  Consider the possibilities with a few discarded cardboard boxes.  If you can’t think of anything, just give them to your child and see what he does with them.  You may be amazed.  These activities require imagination, thought and planning and gradually, they develop physical and mental skills.  They are indispensible tools of early child development.

Playing catch with a ball or other soft objects helps develop hand-eye coordination and visual (figure-ground, near-far & depth) perception, both of which are vital for reading and writing. Tossing a bean bag at a target, throwing a basketball at a bucket or lowered hoop, playing “horseshoes” or bowling with a child’s set are all good ways to develop academic readiness with play.  Toys that require thought and imagination such as puzzles, building blocks, construction sets, dress-up costumes, puppets, dolls and toy vehicles also build depth perception, balance, hand-eye co-ordination and planning skills.

All children are unique and develop their senses and cognitive skills at different speeds.  Some do simple addition at four while others are still struggling with single digit addition at seven. This is still within a normal window. In the not so distant past, teachers did not worry about a child who had difficulty with simple arithmetic or reading until age seven or eight. By then, nearly all children were reading and calculating. Now, we hear shrill cries of dyslexia before a child turns six! This is miseducation exemplified. For more information on why this is true go to: http://www.turboreader.com/PDF/Miller-Blumenfeld_Dyslexia_Article.pdf  for an enlightening article by education researcher, Samuel Blumenfeld.

Games and activities help children learn for a number of reasons, chief of which is that they provide concrete models for children to see, hear about, touch and move. Rigidly scripted lessons can also provide this but the enjoyment and excitement of a game adds additional memory capacity to the mix. Brain research has shown that the memory and emotion centers of the brain are closely connected. We remember what we are excited about. I still remember vividly the card game my mother used to teach me the numbers and their numerical values. Playing games with your children provides so much more than just family fun; it is a wonderful bonding and learning experience.

CAUTION:  Electronic screens are one-dimensional and will not help your child develop depth perception, distance vision or the hand-eye coordination skills and muscle memory needed for writing.  Moreover, they force the child’s eyes to focus on a very close object, which can lead to myopia (near-sightedness) if too much time is spent looking at the screen.  Optometrists recommend severely limiting screen time as well as close visual tasks such as worksheets.  Activities using real objects and requiring more movement than a finger swipe will develop as well as protect your child’s vision.  One very simple activity that can minimize the damage from excessive “screen time” is the fun activity of playing catch with your child on a regular basis.  The process of playing catch incorporates the necessity of near – far fixation thus forcing the eye to use all the muscles and escape the tendency for it to think that all activities are close focus as with excessive screen time.