Monday, March 30, 2009

Playing with numbers - how children learn about quantity.

einstein-never1I was planning to read this book for a while. It was highly recommended to me by my friend Autumn and a few other people. I thought that the book will be somewhat theoretical, but I am really enjoying reading it. It describes a lot of research on child development in the terms that are simple to understand. The main premise of the book is that children learn best through an unstructured play and not through any kind of formal instruction with educational props. It really speaks to my own approaches and also contains a lot of practical advice on what to do to encourage certain areas of development at certain ages. One of the first chapters talked about how children learn about numbers and quantity and I was amazed to discover how "on the spot" the authors were describing the steps and mistakes on the path to mathematical awareness. Every chapter ends with Bringing the Lessons Home section summarizing the advice in it. Here is one for helping children learn about numbers and mathematical concepts:

  • Think blocks, not videos. The very best way to learn about numbers is to manipulate objects, line them up, compare sets, and so on. There is simply no substitution for playing with objects, and these actions speak louder than words. Plus, this type of play is something children love to do without being told!

  • Find the numbers everywhere. Just as you can find rectangles in buildings and hexagons in stop signs, numbers appear wherever you turn. When we deal the same number of cards to each player and when we count up how many party favors we need for our guests, we are doing mathematics. When we add more ice cream for the additional person, we are adding quality. When we then eat ice cream, we are doing subtraction.

  • Playing = learning. Playing the card game of War is math at its best. Money offers wonderful opportunities not only for counting, but for creating sets. Can your child create the set you have created? If you put out three pennies, can he? If you take away one penny, can he? Which is worth more - three pennies or one nickel?

  • Encourage your child to learn in context. We all learn better when we learn something meaningful. Children will learn much more at a supermarket looking for big and small apples that they will from computer games. At around 3 or 4, children love to play board games. Candy Land is one that has been forever popular among the young set. When you and your child, roll the dice and move your pieces, you are using one-to-one correspondence, and the outcome really matters to your child! Our job as teachers and parents, then, is to seize the opportunities that live around us and to allow children to learn in context.

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Saturday, March 28, 2009

Things Kids Say - Boogies Need to Breathe

mar22_bouncingAnna (in the car): My nose has two holes. Why it has holes, mama?

Me: Why do you think it is?

Anna: It's for boogies to come out, because they need to breathe.

Me: Really?

Anna (indignantly): Mama, stop asking me "why"! I want you to explain it to me!

Thursday, March 26, 2009

Teaching toddlers about time

mar25_balls1Don't get me wrong - I am not going to write how to teach toddlers to tell time. I think this skill is not needed for young children. We adults live too much in the past and in the future. It's refreshing to see my girl reveling in the present, fully engrossed in the activity of the moment. However, I do believe that young children need to be aware of the sequence of events happening during the day and have some idea of their duration. We were saying jokingly that Anna is certainly training to be a project manager, when she was an emergent talker. She didn't say I want to do XYZ. She would say instead, It's time to do XYZ. I suppose that I used this phrase often enough with her, and I still do. I try to give her some heads up on what's coming next and I do transitioning from one activity to another by giving 10, 5 and 3-minute warnings. Anna's favorite phrase before going to bed is, What am I going to do after this nap? I think she asks because she wants to reflect and prepare for what's coming. Is it good that she thinks of the future already? I think it is beneficial as long as she is enjoying the present fully and not worrying about what's coming next.

Monday, March 23, 2009

Happy Birthday, The Very Hungry Caterpillar!

the-very-hungry-caterpillarIt came to my attention that last week The Very Hungry Caterpillar turned 40. We have this book in two versions - English and German. Interestingly, in an English version, this caterpillar is male, and in a German version it's a she. I can see why this book is such a hit with young toddlers. It's simple, has a clear beginning and end, and introduces both unfamiliar things (caterpillar, cocoon) through familiarity of food that the very hungry caterpillar is eating. The drawings are cute, especially those holes where little toddlers can stick their own fingers. And it teaches a lot of concepts through simple repetition - counting to five, days of the week, a natural miracle of transformation from one creature to a very different creature. We read this book probably a thousand times in Anna's second year of life. Now she lost interest in it, but I am keeping this book hoping that one day she will want to read it by herself.

Thursday, March 19, 2009

Raising Problem-Solvers


Adapted from Ages & Stages:

Children face problems all day long that give them lots of opportunities to practice problem-solving skills. Problem-solving doesn't involve memorizing the alphabet or the names of colors and shapes. Rather, it's a skill that enables children to think both logically and creatively about their world and about the way things work. Ask questions that encourage different kinds of thinking that lead to better problem-solving skills:

Means-End Thinking:

  • What could you do to reach the light switch?

  • If you want to get dry after the bath, what do we need?

  • Where could we look for an answer to your question?

Consequential thinking:

  • If you keep whining, what will happen next? (Hint: Timeout!)

  • If we are out of milk, what should we do?

Divergent thinking (in my opinion, this one is the hardest to do naturally)

  • Can you think of another way to make me smile?

  • What else can we build out of those blocks?

  • What other shapes can you make out of playdoh?

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Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Happy St Patrick's Day!

mar12_dirtyfaceIt was a St Patrick's Day yesterday. We are not Irish, but I figured that it would be nice for Anna to have some awareness of various cultures and their traditions. So I talked to her about shamrocks (naively, I called them clovers until I started to look for some activity ideas for St Patrick's day). I printed out pretty shamrocks and brought them home with the thoughts of having Anna color them. But... the weather was just too nice. I abandoned all the thoughts of teaching my child to color within the lines, and we went to our neighborhood park instead. I managed to find and show her real clover leaves. We talked about how a clover usually has three leaves, but a "lucky" clover can have four. We didn't find any "lucky ones" :) Then we hunted dandelions and blew them. We talked how dandelions start yellow and then turn white, and how white seeds are blown by the wind. I was commenting how the grass became long and healthy and green after all the rains we had. Suddenly Anna said, Mama, I am in the meadow! Just like Tootle! I asked, So are you a train now? She looked at me and said chidingly, No, I am Anna. I want to go on a swing now! And she skipped along in an inimitable way of a happy toddler.

Monday, March 16, 2009

Want your toddlers to count? Think M&Ms!

mar13_mmsA few weeks ago I commented in one of my posts how Anna counts by memorization, and how she resists counting, because her memorization was incorrect and she was always missing 6 and 7. Well, it seems that she just couldn't connect to this whole concept of counting. She couldn't care less about counting objects in the books or even outside. Suddenly it changed, when she received a small pack of M&Ms on Valentine's Day. Our daughter became a M&M addict and begged for more M&Ms every day. My husband went out and bought a giant pack of colorful M&Ms and made her count every time he would give her some. He told her that he would give her two more if she counted the ones on her plate correctly. I taught Anna to avoid counting the same M&M twice, by pushing each counted M&M to the other side of her plate. In the space of one week her counting turned from mechanical memorization to a meaningful activity. Once she really figured out counting, she started counting other things without any prompting. One example from the recent trip on the playground:

Anna (swinging on the swing). There are four children on the slide, mama? Why?

Me (confused). I don't know. Why?

Anna: Because two more went home with their mama.

M&Ms gave us not only better counting abilities, they also allowed us to introduce concepts of adding (I give you two more M&Ms, now let's count them again), and subtraction (You had 7, you ate 3, now how many are left?) in a very natural way. I strongly recommend them as a fun and tasty teaching tool :)

Saturday, March 14, 2009

Things kids say: Santa Claus


In early January 2009. Anna is about 27 months. She sits in bed just before saying "Night-night":

Anna: I am scared of Santa Claus.
Me: Santa Claus? Why?
Anna: I am a tiny little bit scared of Santa Claus.
Me: It's OK. Why are you scared of Santa Claus?
Anna (lowering her voice to a whisper): He is real
Me: But, Anna, Santa Claus loves children. He gives presents. And, Christmas is over. Santa Claus doesn't come back until next Christmas.
Anna (getting agitated): I don't want to see him! I don't want to sit on his lap! He is so tall! He is so red!
Me: It's OK. You don't have to sit on his lap. Should I put away your Christmas books too?
Anna: Yes! Christmas books are for babies!

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Sounds vs. Letters

short-a-and-long-aI think that English language has an easy grammar in comparison to other languages I studied (my native Russian, French, German). However, in my opinion, it more than compensates for simplicity of its grammar with complexity of phonetic rules. The whole idea of the same letter making completely different sounds is hard to grasp, so I am not surprised that so many kids are struggling to read. While traveling the web, I found a great blog - Everyone Can Learn that gives some recommendations on teaching dyslexic children to read. I think those posts are also very applicable to young children.

When thinking about how to introduce the concept of different sounds to Anna, I found this delightful series in our library called "The Sound Box" by Jane Belk Moncure. I brought the story pictured here home. Anna was playing with her magnetic letters, and I told her, Would you like to listen to the story about letter A? Then I read her a book, and she fell in love with it. We read it about 30 times now (it's her latest "potty" book), and she finds it very entertaining. What I also like about the book that it introduces the idea of a competition in a very simple way. A boy and a girl are looking for words with their sounds, and whoever finds most, wins. Plus, it made Anna actually want to count the words they found - something that she is doing more readily lately. I am sure that some more modern equivalents of this series exist as well - if someone know of any, please leave me a comment :)

Monday, March 9, 2009

Checklist for parents of toddlers - getting ready to read


I found this checklist following the links from the National Institute of Literacy. How can you help your toddler get ready to read during the ages of 2 and 3.

  • I read to my child every day, even if it's only for a few minutes.

  • I encourage my child to bring his favorite books to me, so we can read them together.

  • I point to pictures and name them out loud, and I encourage my child to point to pictures while we read.

  • I watch to see if my child sometimes makes eye contact with me when I read aloud. This tells me whether she is playing attention to me and the story.

  • I talk with my child throughout the day about things we are doing and things that are happening around us.

  • I try to be patient when my child wants to read the same book over and over again.

  • I encourage my child to "play" with books - pick them up, flip them from front to back, and turn the pages.

  • Sometimes I listen when my child pretends to "read" a book - he holds the book, goes from page to page, and says words, even though they are not the words on the page.

  • I give my child crayon and paper, so she can scribble, make pictures, and pretend to write.

Saturday, March 7, 2009

Things kids say: Baby Moon

nov8_tomatoSince I don't have a lot of time on weekends to write in my blog, I decided to introduce a new category "Things kids say" and capture some of the most interesting conversations we had over the past few months. This is from November 2008, Anna was a little more than 2 years old:
Anna in the car (after looking at the crescent moon tonight): Where is circle moon?
Me: You know, it's an excellent question. A full moon happens only once every month. Then moon gets smaller every night and finally a new moon is born.
Anna: A new moon is baby moon?
Me: That's right
Anna (after a couple of minutes of silence): When Anna very young... Anna drinks milk mama's breast. Baby moon drinks milk circle moon's breast. Where is circle moon?
Me: Umm... How would you like to listen to a new CD?

Friday, March 6, 2009

Teaching toddlers colors

brown-bear-carleAnna's preschool teacher has commented yesterday how well Anna knows her colors. It's true - she mastered her colors around 18 months, it's a bit earlier than average. Now at her ripe old age of 28 months she advanced from red and yellow to chartreuse (thank you, Blue Clues) and lavender. Here are the techniques that worked well for us:

  • Label colors as much as you can. I said countless times You are wearing a red shirt today, The sky is so blue today, This flower is purple, This tiger is orange, etc.

  • Read books with bright realistic pictures and point out objects of the same color.

  • Use props such as brightly colored blocks (we used Lego Duplo). I would hold several blocks of two different colors (for example, red and yellow) on my palm and ask Anna to give me a red block. I would praise her generously when she picked the right color.

  • Don't get frustrated, when your child starts "coloring his/her world" in one color. Anna picked yellow as her favorite color and for several weeks she would say Yellow! to any What color is XYZ? question. It's completely normal, and it goes away eventually.

  • It's kind of obvious, but label the colors your child uses while coloring with paints or crayons.

  • Don't stop when your child learns basic blue/red/green. Keep pointing colors to him/her and attract his/her attention to shades of the same color. I like to play a color game on the cloudy days when we drive somewhere. I ask Anna what colors she sees in the sky and talk how light makes colors look darker or brighter.

  • Web is full of activity ideas, songs and worksheets to help you. One of my favorite sites is Suite101, you can start your search there.

Tuesday, March 3, 2009

How to Help Your Toddler Develop Fine Motor Skills

feb10_mosaicDespite her academic talents, Anna is less than stellar when it comes to motor skills, both gross and fine. Just to see where she should be, I checked one of my favorite sites, BabyCenter, for their milestone chart on fine motor development:

At age...Most can...May also...
2 Years• Stack five or more blocks• Turn a doorknob• Hold crayons or pencils (but not as easily as an adult)• Draw a horizontal line• Manipulate eating utensils (but not holding them the way an adult would)• Suck through a straw• Remove shoes and socks• Work puzzles with knobs• Remove other clothes (without buttons), diaper• Scribble• Brush teeth (with help)•Wash hands
3 Years• Stack nine or ten blocks• Undress self (but still needs some help dressing)• Wash and dry hands• Feed self• Copy a rough circle and a cross• Work puzzles with large pieces• Use blunt scissors• Pour liquid from a pitcher (with spills)• String large beads

• Brush teeth (with help)
• Fasten large buttons• Use blunt scissors to cut a straight line• Eat from a spoon without spilling
4 Years• Dress and undress (but can't tie bows, zip up zippers)• Brush teeth without help• Draw simple shapes (roughly) when asked• Build block structures that are vertical and horizontal• Cut around pictures with scissors• Fold a napkin into a triangle or rectangle• Draw a person with three parts• Bathe self without assistance• Use toilet alone and wipe• Begin to make the letters of own name

She can sort of do what a two-year-old is expected to do, but she is completely not interested in dressing herself, gets upset faced with a closed door, and quickly loses interest in the games involved blocks unless they are Lego blocks. It's the same with feeding - she can use a spoon and a fork, but she also quickly loses interest and either switches to hands or asks to be fed. So about two months ago we launched a "program" to help our daughter with her fine motor skills. Of course, her preschool with its arts projects and older kids helped a lot, but we also tried to increase her exposure to activities requiring fine motor skills:

  • Playing with play-dough - rolling, shaping, cutting, etc.

  • Painting with brushes, I highly recommend Crayola pot set, the colors are so brilliant.

  • Getting her toddler scissors. They are still big for her, but she is extremely interested in cutting and pasting (with help).

  • Scribbling with crayons and on the magnetic doodle board. That's where we can see the improvement most.

  • Playing with stickers.

  • Building with Lego.

  • Playing with small puzzle sets (the one in the picture came from the Russian toy store - a gift from Anna's grandma).

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Monday, March 2, 2009

Today is Dr Seuss' Birthday

the-cat-in-the-hatWhen I went to Google this morning, I saw its letters dressed as Dr Seuss' characters and realized that today is Dr Seuss' Birthday. I have to admit that I have not been a big fan before Anna was born, and even now struggle with some of his works. Perhaps it's because I am not a native speaker, and my mind really can't cope well with nonsensical words in a non-native language. However, now when I know more about how young children absorb language, I can appreciate Dr Seuss' genius a lot more. Why, it's enough to take a look at some other books for early readers that are excruciatingly boring both for children and for parents. Dr Seuss' rhymes are catchy and stay in your head for days, no matter how hard you try to get them out. And considering how many of his stories are out there, everyone can find something that he or she likes. I have to say that neither Anna or I are in love with illustrations - I find most of Dr Seuss' creatures ugly, and it's hard to decide whether they are animals or people. Can't you tell that I am an engineer and take everything literally :)

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