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Tips & Toys for Valuable Play Experiences at Home
By Renee Farrington

Ever feel bombarded by information telling us we need to be a partner in our child's learning? We're constantly reminded that the earliest years are the most powerful learning years. Psychologists tell us that a typical 17-year-old develops 50 percent of intelligence before age four, 30 percent between the ages of four and eight and 20 percent between the ages of eight and 17. What's a parent to do? Do we need to teach kids more information at an earlier age? No! We can't "Create Child Geniuses in 10 Easy Steps." So how do we help our children learn? Remember the wonder of learning something on your own? To a child the world is full of wonder and each moment is a new learning experience. And for a child, learning comes through play. In this article we hope to help you add more play to your day and to show how important play is to your child's learning.

What is Child's Play?
Learning through play lets us take advantage of our child's natural curiosity-- and at the same time we get a chance to bring out the child in ourselves. Kids are all ready and eager to learn. We just need to provide the opportunities. For young children, these learning opportunities take place during play. What is play?

  • Play is to kids what brainstorming is to grown-ups.
  • All creative adults play.
  • Play is to create, to discover, to experiment.
  • Play is to recreate the world and be able to change it.
  • Play is to master our bodies.
  • Play is to adventure into nature and science and find answers to questions.
  • Play is mastering materials and tools and making connections.
  • Play is essential to childhood and good toys are its tools.

Taking Advantage of Teachable Moments
While children are playing and throughout our daily routine, we have a chance to provide and take advantage of "teachable moments". Teachable moments are those opportunities to increase children's learning without planning. They don't require explanations of concepts or even academic vocabulary. But they do help build a foundation for more academic learning later on. Let’s look at some teachable moments and teaching toys that pave the way for learning at school.

To many adults, math is a complex subject. But it doesn't have to be. There are many fun and easy ways to introduce young children to math concepts simply by playing with items around the house. Here are a few ideas to get you started:

  • Invite your child to help you measure items during cooking and household repair tasks. Try measuring and weighing members of the family including pets and make comparisons.

  • Count backwards using the timer on the microwave.

  • Help your child divide food into equal serving portions.

  • Sort and count the dishes and the cutlery at the dinner table.

  • Watch the gauges on the dashboard of the car and time the trip.

  • Look for measuring, calculating, and weighing instruments at places you visit with your child.

  • Sort the laundry into types and pairs.

  • Use a sporting event to do math problems with scores and statistics.

The cool thing about science is that it seems like such magic. It's not hard to achieve the WOW! factor so important for learning. It is through wonder and awe at the physical and natural world that kids get hooked on science.

  • Did you know that if you hold a magnifying glass at arm's length, the objects you look at will be upside down?

  • What kind of magic makes magnet rings float on a pencil?

  • Watch the chemical reactions that take place when mixing ingredients together and adding heat or cold during cooking.

  • Grow seeds in the ground and in jars to see their roots.

  • Go on a nature collection walk and mount the collection in shadow boxes.

  • Record the changes in the night sky.

  • Use a magnet to explore what it will and won't pick up.

  • Experiment with what sinks and what floats at bathtime.

Pablo Picasso said that every child is an artist. The problem is how to remain an artist after growing up. When children draw and color, they express feelings, make important decisions, and tell stories. Their drawings may not look like much to you, but to a child their drawings are works of art.

  • Don't analyze a child's artistic endeavors. Let your child tell you about what she has done.

  • Enjoy the process of art with your child. Find the artist in you while you nurture your child's natural creativity.

  • Remember that a child's creativity may take an entirely different direction from yours!

  • Point out how different artists express feelings and visions through their arts.

  • Collect all sorts of stuff to create with-- one person's junk is the stuff of another's imagination.

  • Have art materials ready around the house and for travel and waiting times.

  • Encourage your children to make hand-made gifts and cards-- join in on the creation time.

  • Make music together by pounding out rhythms on oatmeal boxes.

  • Create a home gallery or fold-up album of artwork and photos of artistic achievements.

Social Studies
A child's understanding of the world around him begins with understanding himself. What better place than in the home to begin to understand ourselves and our role in the family, the community, and the world? Talk with your child about events in your daily life as well as those outside the family. Observe your child's role-playing and help him to understand himself and that great big world of grownups.

  • Create a family tree, history timeline, and a time capsule or memory book.

  • Study newspapers and magazines from the day or month you and your child were born. What looks different?

  • Share collections of stamps, coins, old toys, or other antiques.

  • Record family events, travel, and milestones on tape and film. Look at these as tomorrow's heritage and history.

  • Imaginative role-playing is the way a child learns the social rules she and others will play in the "real world." So join in the pretend play with your child!

  • Provide dress-up clothes, a great big box, and a few old household or office items. One day it's a dream house, another a doctor's office, another a supermarket. Watch imaginations and self-understanding soar!

Motor Skills
A child needs opportunities to balance, jump, run, push, pull, carry, and fiddle with lots of different physical things. In her book, Smart Moves, Carla Hannaford explains why "learning is not all in your head." The body is the means by which we gather information to give our brain. We learn through our senses. As a child develops, he needs opportunities to experience the world through all the senses and to move freely from discovery to discovery. It is our bodies that express what the brain has thought-- through speaking, writing, music making, computing, etc.

  • Share with your child a favorite sports motion or other physical skill (how to skip backward, look like you're pulling off your thumb, wiggle your ears, etc.).

  • Have a rousing game of charades. Guess what the motions represent.

  • Let your child help with the proper use of tools in the kitchen, workshop, garage, and garden.

  • Make your own obstacle course in your yard! You can make it as simple or complex as you want. For example, run to the fence and touch it. Next twirl to the swing set and go down on the slide. Skip to the picnic table and crawl under it. Do a cartwheel, then hop back to where you started. Take turns with your child making up the course.

  • Put on fun music and dance with your child; show each other silly dance moves and make up a routine together.

Recent studies have shown that language acquisition begins before birth and that babies have the amazing ability to distinguish different sounds and voices within a few hours of being born. Remember a newborn has over a hundred billion brain cells. As a baby is stimulated through a variety of interactions, trillions of synapses develop and the baby's intellect grows. You can enhance language development in your children simply by communicating with and reading to your children on a frequent and regular basis.

  • Talk with your child about what you're doing and what the child is doing – make up silly songs about what you see and feel! Don't forget to tape record your words.

  • Read signs, labels, and directions together.

  • Go on a word scavenger hunt from billboards, shop windows, and signs.

  • Play "Alphabet I Spy."

  • Write shopping lists, greeting cards, fridge messages, wish lists, and thank you notes together with your child.

  • Read together. Let your child read to you and let him see you reading.

What Makes a Good Toy
It's not what the toy does-- it's what the child does with the toy. The more detail in the toys, the less the child's imagination is nurtured. Plan a balanced menu of different toys for different discoveries. Some encourage activity, some creativity, and others help in specific learning areas. Keep to a minimum the trend toys, TV toys, and toys with limited flash-in-the-pan appeal.

  • Choose toys that are open-ended and have a variety of ways they can be played with at different levels.

  • Remember that just because a product is for a child does not mean that it should be disposable or of inferior design.

  • Be sure a toy is safe and sturdy and does what a child wants it to. Look for toys that arouse a child's natural curiosity, that let the child experiment and find things out for himself without instruction. When buying toys, safety, quality, and variety come first! A baby needs a variety of toys to stimulate ALL the senses.

Renee Farrington recently retired from Discount School Supply, where she conceptualized, wrote, and developed products for young children.