Whether you’re bouncing a wiggly baby on your lap during a Zoom call or trying to meet the needs of a preschooler who begs you to “Play with me!” all day, the coronavirus has certainly put parents to the test.
But layering in educational lessons along the way? Do we need super powers for that?
Lisa Welsh and Anneliese Johnson, experts in early childhood education from The Ohio State University, explained recently on a webinar that not only is it possible to teach young children right now, but it can be part of your (new) daily routines.
“Brain development is fastest in the first five years,” Welsh said. More than 1 million new neural connections are made per second. “It is the largest brain growth we have in our lifetime.”
Welsh is the lead education specialist for Ohio State’s Early Head Start Partnership program; Johnson is the principal of the A. Sophie Rogers School for Early Learning. Both programs are a part of the Schoenbaum Family Center, which improves children’s well-being through research, practice and policy.
Read on for their tips and advice for helping young children learn at home.
Master the ‘serve and return.’
Think of conversations with your little one like a game of tennis. A baby might fix her gaze on something, or a toddler may shout, “Look! Look! Look!”
Welsh said that’s your cue: Take a moment out and engage with your child in that moment of curiosity, commenting on what it is or asking a question so they take the next turn.
By volleying back and forth, you are teaching turn-taking (social-emotional development) and digging into whatever subject matter (literacy, math, science) interests them naturally.
It usually doesn’t take very long to have these quick exchanges, and you can even build off their ideas later when you have more time, Johnson said.
Example: “Oh, I saw you really enjoyed those flowers on our walk earlier. Let’s count the tulips in our own garden and maybe draw flowers with chalk when we’re finished!”
Sharing can build social-emotional skills.
From infancy to age 5, social-emotional skill-building is foundational for other learning to take place, the experts explained. These are the skills that give children confidence in themselves and enable them to work with others and succeed as part of a community. They’re also a predictor of success in kindergarten, Welsh said.
So how can you encourage social-emotional skills when you’re keeping your circle small?
- Share chores. Show them how the task is done, and let them help you. Try not to focus on your child doing things perfectly. Doing their best is what to applaud here.
- Share feelings. Labeling emotions and helping your child give a name to those feelings goes a long way toward building resiliency. When you’re reading a book, ask your child how they think a character is feeling when the story shifts direction. You also can use dolls or puppets to role play, and there are free feelings charts online that can help children identify their emotions.
- Share turns. Whether it’s playing peek-a-boo with a baby or taking turns turning the pages in a book, find ways to teach give-and-take.
Foster a love for language and literacy.
Rhythm and sounds of language are absorbed by children as early as infancy, Welsh said. As your child ages into the preschool and kindergarten years, practicing fine-motor skills associated with writing becomes important.
Here’s how to work in lessons throughout the day:
- Talk and sing. Put your vanity aside; your child thinks you’re amazing. Singing and talking when they are young helps build language skills, Welsh said. Share stories and observations about your own life, or give live-action commentary about what you’re doing as you do your chores.
- Open up that junk drawer. For older children, get out tape or sticky notes and let them label things around the house or put “M” on everything that begins with “M” that day.
- Get creative with writing. Build fine-motor skills by coloring on foil. Write notes to loved ones on the back of wrapping paper to switch it up for the day. Get out your paintbrushes and let them practice writing their letters on the sidewalk in water. Using materials that are a break from the ordinary will increase the fun factor in learning.
More than 1 million new neural connections are made per second during the first five years.
Multiply the mathematical thinking.
Pointing out the shapes of common objects and using descriptive language — “over,” “under,” “inside,” “on top of” — all encourage mathematical thinking in children, Welsh said. What are other ways you can work on these skills at home?
- Count all the things. How many stairs are there as we walk up to your room? How many steps does it take to get from the kitchen to the living room? How many jumping jacks can you do in a minute? If I put two baby carrots on your plate and two cucumbers, how many vegetables do you have?
- Measure without a ruler. Children learn the concepts associated with inches and centimeters later, but the idea of measuring and small, bigger, biggest are within reach. Likewise, you can combine measuring and counting with everyday objects. For example, how many apples long is your ukulele?
- Make patterns. Use the socks in the sock drawer, dandelions and rocks from the yard, marbles or buttons. Even drawing boxes on a piece of paper and letting them color it in works. Vary it up from every-other to 2-3-1-2-3-1 and so on.
Keep it moving.
Finally, understand that a child’s attention span is going to be much shorter than yours — and probably that Zoom call, Johnson said.
Developmentally, it’s appropriate for even 3- to 5-year-olds to stick with something for only 20 minutes or so, and they often wander in and out of lessons in a traditional preschool setting. Try to save novel activities for when you need to focus.
“If you showed them how to use a material,” such as dominoes, Johnson said, “show them how to set them up and knock them down right before a call so they have that a-ha moment to keep them busy.”