Home: The First Classroom

Parent to Parent

Word games — "I'll say a word like •elephant' and ask my son to tell me everything he can about it. He'll talk about the color and size, where it lives, what it eats, where we've seen one before. As he gets older, I'll ask him to give more details and even use the word in a sentence. It's a great exercise because we're focusing on learning and language and he's doing creative thinking." — Jon Manke, Bainbridge

Scavenger hunt — "You can play this anywhere: the grocery store, the library or even at home. Our favorite place to play is at the zoo. We pick out a word like •nocturnal' or •hibernation' and go looking for the animals that the word describes. At the grocery store, we can look for things that are orange or square. At home, we search for chairs or numbers."

— Margaret Jung, Solon

Obstacle course — "When my daughter asks me to chase her, sometimes I opt for a directed obstacle-course game instead. I call out for her to run around the playhouse, under the table, through the tunnel, up the stairs and so on. She practices movement, direction and spatial relationships while burning off energy at the same time."

— Kate Malarney, South Russell

When it comes to interacting with the preschool set, experts agree that the best way for them to learn is through communication and play. And the best skills to focus on are problem-solving and language development. Fair enough. But what exactly can parents do to make sure they're playing and communicating to best benefit their children?

Talking — "The very best way to help your children develop is to talk to them," says Peggie Price, vice president of children and families of Head Start in Greater Cleveland. "Language is very important. It is the precursor to literacy."

As children become more verbal, give them the opportunity to use language every chance they get. When you talk to children, don't ask yes-or-no questions, ask how and why and what. This will help them learn to describe and understand their world.

Reading — For promoting literacy, reading goes hand-in-hand with talking to children. Choose age-appropriate books that present material you can discuss together. "Rhyming books are especially good for captivating young minds," says Price. "Nursery rhymes are tried and true." When reading, ask children questions about what might happen next in the story and why. This will engage them in ownership of the story and spark their imaginations.

Toys and Games — "When it comes to toys," says Colleen Olson, assistant professor of early childhood education at Cuyahoga Community College Metro Campus, "learning often means working with patterns, geometry and counting." She suggests letting children learn about math and science by dumping things out, filling them up and putting similar items into rows. They learn about spatial relationships when they crawl inside boxes, under tables and into kitchen cupboards.

"Children need physical activities," Olson says. "And they need to be able to make messes and clean them up." Good ideas for stimulating games to play include follow the leader, duck-duck-goose and Simon says. Board games, puzzles, building toys, musical instruments and jump ropes are also good because they focus on problem solving.

Media — We know the warnings about too much TV for our children, but even television can become a teaching tool when used the right way. First, do strictly limit the amount of time spent watching. To help children get the most out of TV, watch it with them and discuss what is happening. Ask what they think or feel about what they're seeing. "Sesame Street" and "Mister Rogers' Neighborhood" are particularly good.

The radio/CD player can also be an effective teaching tool. Listen to children's stories and music and read or sing along. Songs about numbers and letters are fun and help children retain information. Also, tune in to AM 1260, Cleveland's Radio Disney station, which broadcasts music, stories and kids calling in with questions and ideas for discussion.

Learning to Learn — "These early years are about learning to learn," Olson says. "Give children a chance to solve problems, which is at the heart of all types of later learning."

Most importantly, children learn by example. "Children learn to listen by being listened to, learn to pay attention to others because someone paid attention to them," she says. "Feeling loved, enjoyed and important will build brain connections that propel our children forward." A solid emotional foundation will support and strengthen our children in every endeavor.

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