When preparing children to begin kindergarten, teaching how to learn is more important than what to learn. Building executive function skills, social-emotional development and a growth mindset is more indicative of future achievement than fixed knowledge such as ABCs and 123s. A research validated approach to develop these competencies is self-directed play. Children learn how to plan, make decisions, test theories, as well as how to cooperate and regulate conduct. A variety of emotions and behaviors are taught through pretend play and acting out scenarios encountered in daily experiences.
The three key areas in which parents and caregivers can influence a child’s development, according to early learning studies by the Center for Childhood Creativity (the research and advisory division of the Bay Area Discovery Museum), are Talk & Play, Science & Math, and Body & Brain.
Talk & Play
Build language skills – mix complex, difficult words into everyday conversations. Vocabulary and the capacity to articulate thoughts contribute more to reading fluency than being able to recognize letters and sounds.
Augment fine motor coordination – supplement writing preparation through hands-on activities like ripping tape, handling Legos, and building with clay.
Emphasize persistence – help child to move past frustration by focusing on challenge and strategy during play (e.g., “Why did —– happen when you did —–?”)
Utilize play to identify emotions for self and others – teach strategies to handle a wide range of feelings through charades, puppets, games with facial expressions photos, and pretend scenarios. Ask questions such as “How would you feel if —-? How do you think she is feeling right now? What would make her feel better?”
Use imaginary play – change roles (e.g., doctor and patient), supplying child with props such as play tools. Older preschoolers may be able to re-purpose household items to make their own props, sparking creativity and thinking flexibility.
Encourage storytelling – begin a story and ask another family member to extend the plot. Repeat. A child can also act out their story or draw pictures to make a book.
Science & Math
Instill an early understanding of science – help child to experiment by making observations, noticing differences and similarities, asking questions, describing objects/animals/plants, etc., and predicting what may happen next in a process. Explain processes you observe together (e.g., why thunder occurs).
Embrace creativity over logical reasoning – invite explanations and test theories. Generation of ideas is more important than being right or wrong.
Model curiosity – demonstrate how “I don’t know” is an invitation to discover answers.
Incorporate addition and subtraction questions into everyday routines – e.g., “How many cookies are on your plate? If you eat two, how many are left?”
Extend matching and sorting – play games that switch the rules (e.g., first by color, then change to shape). Reinforce thinking flexibility, working memory, and self-regulation by playing a bingo game in which “X” marks the opposite of what is said by the leader. Quirkle and Block Buddies are two commercial games that foster these skills.
Practice sequencing – put things in a specified order: first, next, last. Sequencing is a useful precursor to math and coding.
Extend spatial learning – manipulate shapes and objects (e.g., building blocks or Wikki Sticks).
Cultivate an understanding of quantity – help child grasp that the word “five” is greater than four and less than six, that four apples and four pencils are the same quantity, and rolling the number two on a die allows a player to move forward two spaces in a board game. Meaningful adult-child interactions, playing simple board games (such as Chutes and Ladders), and singing songs that integrate numbers establish a strong foundation in mathematics.
Encourage students past kindergarten to continue counting on their fingers – aids number comparison and estimation tasks.
Surprisingly, researchers found that first graders’ finger representation was a better predictor of future math achievement than their scores on measures of cognitive processing.
~ Reimagining School Readiness, Center for Childhood Creativity
Body & Brain
Give opportunities to plan and make decisions – cultivate self-regulation by allowing a preschooler to decide what to do, select the materials to use, and explore ways to make something happen.
Incorporate songs and games to help develop executive functions – play games like Simon Says to build inhibitory control. Songs and movement games requiring children to match lyrics to rhythm and music strengthens thinking flexibility. Repeating or adding verses in songs such as She’ll Be Coming ‘Round the Mountain enhances working memory. Freeze dance enforces self-regulation and attention.
Assign tasks with 2-3 steps – cooking is an enjoyable activity to practice inhibition while waiting for directions, focus to measure and count ingredients, and stimulate working memory.
As this series concludes, keep in mind that the process of school readiness does not end when children enter kindergarten. Research has proven that creating a strong foundation for academic and life achievement is a dynamic process that continues through age eight. Visit the Kidsblog to learn more opportunities to help children thrive!
Eisenmann, Amy. (2019, March 21). Part 3: Practical Implications from Research. Bay Area Discovery Museum, Center for Childhood Creativity. [Infopeople webinar]
Executive Function Activities for 3- to 5-year-olds. Center on the Developing Child at Harvard University (2014). Enhancing and Practicing Executive Function Skills with Children from Infancy to Adolescence. Retrieved from www.developingchild.harvard.edu [website]
Working with Preschoolers (ages 3-5 years). Promising Practices: A Guide for Library Staff (Center for Childhood Creativity).
Photo credits: Terry Lorant Photography/CA State Library LSTA grant, April Bryant via Pixabay