"Fast-Tracking to Kindergarten?" This was the headline of a New York Times article on Sunday, May 15 about pushing structured reading and math curriculum in preschools such as Kumon Junior. Many of you may feel pressure to give your child an edge by enrolling her in reading and math memorization classes before kindergarten. But wait! Child development researchers have found there are better ways to prepare your child for academic and life success; play activities that are more fun, less pressured, and free. The "games" below are based on child development research on the best ways to build math and science readiness skills for school. You can start by playing these with your child at home then let just let him go -- to experiment through unstructured play alone or with other children.
MIXING BOWL MATH [Based on Research by Alison Gopnik at UC Berkeley]: Ages 9 - 14 months - Open a low cupboard in your kitchen, or any safe play area, that has unbreakable pots and pans, mixing bowls, and/or measuring cups. Let your child experiment with the different sizes of bowls, stacking them on top of each other, or nesting one inside the other. As your child plays with the different sized items provide words to describe their sizes, "little, bigger, big, biggest." Help your child count the bowls as she piles one on top of the other or fits one inside the next.
12 months to 2 years - When you go to the park, take a few pans, mixing bowls, or measuring cups with you to the sand box and help your child learn how to measure sand by pouring it from one sized bowl to the next. As your child experiments with the amount of sand each container holds, help him to describe how one bowl holds "more" or "less" than the other. Make a pile of sand in a corner of the sandbox by pouring one, after another cup or bowl of sand on the other. Count the number of cups or bowls it takes to make the pile as high as your child's knee or even her waist.
2.5 to 4 years Next time you make cookies or any other recipe that calls for cups/tablespoons or teaspoons of ingredients, let your child pour the flour or sugar from the measuring cups or spoons into the mixing bowl. Have your child count the number of cups the recipe requires of each ingredient. After combining the ingredients, ask your child to count how many times she stirs the mixture, or let her set a timer for the number of minutes the mixture will cook.
While the food is cooking, ask your child to draw a picture story about mixing the foods. She may just draw circles for each bowl or cup, but that is a perfect opportunity to talk about the numbers of cups or spoons of ingredients that were used. If your child is interested in what the numerals looks like, help her write the number next to his circles. If your child is three or older and interested in writing, you can write your child's name on the picture with pencil and have your child trace the letters.
BUILDING BLOCK PHYSICS (Based on "Einstein Never Used Flash Cards" by Kathy Hirsh-Pasek): Ages 18 months to 2 years -Using large wooden building blocks help your toddler to build towers and count how many blocks can be stacked before they fall. Make a game of counting the blocks each time a new tower is built to see if your child can better balance the blocks on each new tower to build a higher tower. Take turns counting the number of blocks then naming the colors as the towers are built.
Ages 2.5 to four years - Using small wooden blocks of different sizes and shapes (no Legos for this game because the goal is to understand the physics of balance) build towers, walls of buildings, door and window frames in the walls, and bridges over roads, while talking about "balancing the blocks" for the towers, bridges and walls.. Encourage your child to experiment with methods to construct doorways and windows in the walls by laying blocks half-way on top of a standing block leaving an open space below then "lining up" another block to form the other side of the window or doorway . As you play, help your child compare sizes of blocks and learn shape words like "square," "rectangle, “and" triangle" as blocks are piled on each other or leaned against each other.
After building ask your child to draw a picture story about the "city" or "town" that he built. It is fine if your child just draws circles but talk about each one and ask your child what he just drew. Then count the number of "buildings" or "towers' your child drew and practice writing the numeral on the paper. If your child is three or older and interested in writing, he can practice writing his name on the picture as well.
WHY? I have nothing against structured preschools like Kumon Junior, especially if the alternative is spending time in front of a television. But, both Alison Gopnik at UC Berkeley and Kathy Hirsch-Pasek at Temple University feel this type of approach to pre-school is not necessary. They refer to research that indicates that children who spend time playing games where they can experiment with size, number, nesting, pouring and balancing are not only building skills that will help them with math and science in early grades, they are also developing problem solving skills and discovering the joy of creative innovation. And when children have ample opportunities with this kind of play at home, on the playground, or at a more conventional preschool or daycare center, they will also be developing tools that can help them engage with other children socially, which helps build teamwork and leadership skills.
ONE KEY TO SCHOOL SUCCESS IS PLAY, PLAY, PLAY