My first topic for this exploration into school skills for babies and toddlers will be literacy (reading and writing). This is probably the biggest area of instruction in early elementary school, so we’ll start here. You can do any of these things with your baby or toddler. Even if they can’t tell you what they’re learning, trust me, they’re soaking it all in!
Early Reading Skills:
- Read- I’ve mentioned this before, but reading is so very important. Make it a priority, and a habit, to read with your kids every single day. For us, this means we have an “official” story time before nap time and Bible story time before bed. We also read at various points throughout the day, but this way I know we have a set time every day when reading will definitely happen. If you establish good reading habits (and good reading memories) early on, it will be a lot easier for your kid to keep up those habits in school.
**One other thing here. As you’re reading to your child, read slowly and with a lot of expression. Give your baby time to process what you’re doing. Also, repetition is key. Children love hearing the same stories over and over and over and over again–and it research shows that repetition helps young children learn and retain information. So indulge your little guy in reading “Goodnight, Moon” for the 5,000th time this week.
- Talk about “concepts of print”- As you’re reading, point out different concepts in the book: the title, the cover of the book, the author (“the person who wrote the wonderful words”), the illustrator (“the person who drew the beautiful pictures”), where the sentence begins and ends (talk about different forms of punctuation–“Wow, see that little dot after this word? That’s called a period. A period is like a stop sign for readers.”), the author’s note at the end of the book. This may seem really silly to do all of this with a baby or a young toddler, but they’ll start to get it and they’ll start to become familiar with the language you’re using (so always use the proper names: author, illustrator, etc. and then explain them as necessary).
- Point out details in the story- Rather than just reading the words on the page and calling it a day, take time to elaborate on the story on each page. Point out details in the illustrations, ask questions about what’s happened so far, and see what your child thinks will happen next.
Early Phonics Skills
Phonics basically deals with letters and sounds. Here are some things you can do with your budding linguist:
- Find letters- Find letters and words in your world (on food packaging, road signs, the side of a bus, etc.) and point them out. It’s fun for young kids to see how letters and words are all around them!
- Teach letter sounds- Letters are a confusing concept for young children, especially in the English language where our letters make so many different sounds. At a very young age, it’s best to not even teach the letter “names” (A, B, C, etc.). Rather, focus on the sound each letter makes. For instance, when you see the letter A, say, “this letter says /a/ like apple, alligator, animal.” After all, when it comes time to read, your kid’s going to need to know the sound of the letter, not it’s name, in order to read a word.
I told David that all letters make sounds, just like animals make sounds. We learned the names of the letters and the special sounds that they each made, then we even sing about the letter sounds in a song to the tune of “Old McDonald”. For instance, I’ll hold up the letter A (we have a foam set of letters that we play with in the bath tub) and sing: “Old McDonald had a word, e-i-e-i-o. And in that word there was a letter, e-i-e-i-o. With an /a/ /a/ here, and an /a/ /a/ there, here an /a/, there an /a/, everywhere an /a/, /a/. Old McDonald had a word, e-i-e-i-o.
- Find sounds- Say a sound, and see how many things you can find that begin with that sound. You can even make a “sound box” where you put all of the things that begin with that sound into a box. Making things concrete will help your young child to learn the skill.
- Practice rhyming- Find rhyming words in the stories you’re reading or things you see (“You’re wearing a blue shoe today. Blue, shoe. Those words rhyme!”). There are lots of fun nursery rhymes and songs that have rhyming words, too (“Hickory Dickory, Dock”, “Baa Baa Black Sheep”, “Jack and Jill”, “Down By the Bay”, “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star”).
- Sing- Singing is a great way to develop your baby’s language skills. You can sing about things you’re doing (you can make up the song as you’re going. It can be ridiculous, off-tune, and not make any sense. Your baby will love it). You can sing while you’re doing things–I like singing “Itsy Bitsy Spider” during diaper changes. I use my fingers to go up the water spout (up baby’s legs), make the rain come down (tickle baby’s tummy), wash the spider out (rub baby’s tummy), and have the sun come out (trace a circle around baby’s face). You can also sing to teach (like when you sing the “ABC song”).
Early Writing Skills
Young children lack the fine motor skills to physically hold a pencil and write. There’s a lot you can do now, though, to help get them ready.
- Writing with fingers- Give your kid a chance to practice writing and drawing with something they don’t have to hold on to–their own fingers! Just get a large surface–a high chair tray, table, or a cookie sheet–and cover it with something they can write in. Some of my favorites are shaving cream, finger paints, pudding and whipped cream (just make sure if your baby is still in the puts-everything-in-his-mouth-regardless-of-it’s-level-of-toxicity stage that you give him something edible to play in). If you don’t like messes, put a bit of the “painting material” in a large ziploc bag and duct tape the edges. Your kid can still paint through the bag mess-free.
- Pinching practice- One of the greatest hurdles to writing for young children is the simple fact that their bodies are not physically able to do it. Holding and controlling a pencil is a specific fine motor skill that takes time to develop. Pinching practice can help get those little fingers ready to grasp a pencil. We play a “pincher pick-up” game where I give David a set of tongs and a bunch of little things for him to try to pick up with them (small toys, crafting pom-pom’s, large buttons and beads). He still uses two hands on the pinchers most of the time, but he’s already able to control them a lot more than when we first started playing. A variation on this game is to play in a rice table (to make your own rice table, just fill a large bucket or rubbermaid bin with rice or uncooked beans). Bury the toys in the rice and let your kiddo dig around with the pinchers to find them.
- Playing with clay and dough- Get those little finger muscles strong by letting your kids play with play dough and clay (clay is harder to use, so wait until they’re a bit older for this one). You can make your own play dough or even let them play with bread dough or pizza dough if you’re concerned they will eat it.
- Hand-eye coordination–This is an important foundation to develop for both reading and writing. With a baby, have him practice grasping at toys that you dangle in front of him or reaching for toys that you shake on the floor. For older tots, you can play catching games with “slow” objects like scarves or balloons. You can even make a parachute out of a bed sheet and put soft objects on it to watch as you shake the sheet up and down (get another grown up to help hold the sheet, or invite your friends over for a play date and play parachute together).One of my favorite baby parachute games is “popcorn”. I fill up old socks or nylons with cotton balls, fabric scraps, etc. and tie them off into “popcorn kernels”. Then we make imaginary popcorn: lay out our pan (the sheet), pour our popcorn kernels (the sock balls) into the pan, add whatever flavorings we want (just shake our hands over the “pan” adding chocolate, salt, sprinkles, and cheese…yummmmm….), and then we hold opposite sides of the “pan” and give our popcorn a good shake until all of our popcorn balls invariably pop out of the pan. Repeat until you’re all good and full of popcorn.