So as you can tell in my previous posts, I feel very strongly against early academics. This belief is not just some random personal opinion, but one that is backed up by countless studies and evidence. That said, I also believe that all children are individual, and as such, some children will naturally (meaning without Mom or Dad suggesting it or leading them to it) want to learn to read or write or do math problems, earlier than others.
So what do you do when your 4 or 5 year old wants to learn to read, yet you know that plunking a formal phonics in front of them is not developmentally appropriate? I’ve touched on this briefly in other posts, but today I thought that I would write out a list of great, early learning activities for the child that wants more!
A key to remember in the early years – make learning as multi-sensory as possible. All children learn best through multi-sensory means during the early years. This doesn’t mean that they will enjoy all approaches or may not have a preference, but that giving them a variety of sensory inputs is beneficial to their learning.
1. Introduce letter names and sounds first through alphabet picture books, Montessori sandpaper letters, alphabet blocks, songs, alphabet stickers or flashcards if the child is interested in them.
2. Reinforce letters and their sounds, and also work on early writing skills through fine motor activities such as drawing letters in the air, or in sand, flour, glitter, cornmeal, shaving foam (etc) on a baking tray with their finger. Gradually move to a stylus (a chopstick works well) in the above mediums. Let them finger paint the letters on paper. Then move to them writing their letters on a white board with marker, then a slate with chalk, then unlined paper with crayon, then a pencil. Always progress from easiest mode to hardest, and only at the child’s speed. They can also paint the letters with a brush.
Another fun activity might be getting the children to create their own set of alphabet flashcards in a crayon resist: Have them write the upper and letter case letters on the back of a recipe card (or a 4×6 piece of white cardboard) in crayon. Then, have them paint over the letters in water color (make sure they use lots of water so the paint isn’t too thick). The crayon will resist the paint and create an interesting effect.
3. Reinforce letters and their sounds through gross motor activities such as drawing letters on your back with their finger, and having you guess them (this puts them in the role of “teacher”, something most children enjoy). Then you can switch and you draw letters on their back and have them guess which letters – this is an excellent activity for helping them visualize the letters. You can create masking tape letters on the living room floor or draw them in chalk outside on the driveway and have the children run, walk, hop, skip, crawl etc… over the letters while they chant the name/sound. You can also write the entire alphabet in chalk on the driveway, call out a letter or a sound, and have them jump to the letter you call out. For an indoor version, invest in one of the alphabet foam play mats, and scatter the letters across the playroom floor. Play a bean bag toss game where they toss a bean bag and have to say the letter name/sound of whatever letter the bean bag lands on.
4. Once the child has well learned their 26 basic phonograms, you can start to work on blending. Invest in a set of tactile letters (Lauri foam letters, magnetic letters, scrabble tiles, Montessori sandpaper letters, Montessori movable alphabet, even just printable letter tiles you make yourself etc…) and let them start word building using the tactile letters. You can create a blend ladder (in the style of Abeka or My Father’s World) on the floor with masking tape and let them lay on the floor working with the letters creating blends and words. Eventually once they start building words like rat, mat, hat, cat etc… have them reinforce the word they have learned through a fine motor activity above (writing the word with their finger in sand, painting the word etc). Allow the child to progress at their speed, not yours. They may be content to learn nothing but -at family words for a month. So be it.
5. Go through readers together. I personally love the McGuffey Revised Eclectic Primer as well as the Canadian Catholic First Reader (part 1 & 2), as they are available free from http://www.archive.org. The Canadian Catholic reader especially follows a progression that is very similar to the popular (and expensive) All About Reading. Protestants need not fear – while they were created for Catholic schools, there is absolutely 0 doctrine in the reader, no Catholic references, and are easily used by those of any faith. They are merely a basic reader with sentences like “The cat is on the mat”.
Build the new words in each lesson together with your letter tiles, reinforce them through the fine motor activities listed above, and then finally practice reading the words in the reader. You could also create a reader vocabulary book, and have them copy the lesson words and then draw a picture of what they are.
6. Play games together – Bingo is a great one, you can do letters and use it to reinforce letter names or sounds, or you could create a sight or lesson word Bingo. You could also create Swat! – write letters or words on recipe cards and scatter them across the floor. Give the child a fly swatter and have them swat the letter/sound/word you say. Eventually make it a game of speed, and give challenges of seeing how many letters/sounds/words they can swat in one minute etc…
There are also many phonics/reading games available on Amazon, just do a search for phonics games, and you’ll get many options. Crazy As, Learning Resources Pop! games, Alphabet Go Fish from Peaceable Kingdom, Alphabet Spot It!, Alphabet Island, Didax Word Building Cards (with their reading rods) are some of my picks.
1. Teach numbers much the same way you taught letters, using the same fine and gross motor reinforcement activities listed in #1-3 for Reading/Writing. Hopscotch is also a great game for number recognition and there are foam playmat options available for indoor play.
2. Expand that however with counting activities. Beads, rocks, pebbles etc… have them practice counting and making arrangements of 1-10 items. Call out a number and have them count out that many items. A goal is to have children able to recognize arrangements of 1-10. So, for example you could place 4 pebbles in front of them and without counting they would be able to recognize that there is 4. However, this is a skill that can take time to develop, and shouldn’t be pushed if the child isn’t ready.
3. Make math part of your every day life. Have them set the table and count out how many plates, forks, knives etc… Ask them problems like: if we have two plates on this side of the table and two plates on that side, how many plates are there all together? Have them count to find the answer. Or, ask them: We had four dirty plates and we just put one plate in the dishwasher, how many plates do we have now? Always make the questions concrete and allow them to count to find the answers.
You can also, bake and cook with them and introduce them to the concept of fractions and measurements. Have them measure things by their hands, feet, arms, steps. Ask questions like, what do you think is longer – the table or this stick and have them compare. Move to things like: how many (of your) feet long do you think this room is? Let them guess, and then measure it. Invest in a small scale and let them have fun by comparing weights of items. Buy small building kits (Lowes sell good ones) and build them together, throwing out questions on measuring, counting, adding, subtracting etc…
Play basic board games together where they have to practice counting to move their character etc… Jacks is also a fun game that lends itself nicely to counting and adding. Make it a point to point out the time to them on both digital and analog clocks. They will eventually learn to read the time. Keep it to time-reading only, the more difficult concepts of 60 seconds to a minute, 60 minutes to an hour, 24 hours to a day etc.. can wait until later when they are formally learning math. You can also take them to the calendar each day and point out the day of the week, the month, year, date etc… Make it short and sweet, and over time, they’ll learn it naturally.
4. There are many games that can be played or bought for math. Bingo is great for number recognition. There are many, many options available, so again, just do a search on Amazon for math games. Scholastic also offers many good math games which are very affordable (on a side note, homeschoolers are eligible to get their own Scholastic teacher’s account, so you can order books and items through their book club). Also, invest in pattern blocks, Cuisenaire Rods, and lacing beads. They are great toys to let children play with and discover patterns etc… for themselves.
5. Practice early addition and subtraction using sweet treats: take chocolate chips (marshmallows, popcorn, nuts, grapes, blueberries etc) and have them lay out one. Then ask them to add one more, and tell you how many that is. You can teach them the number sentences, 1 + 1 = 2. Then have them add one more, to make 3, then four and so on, all the way up to 10. Then, once they’ve made 10, have them eat (subtract/take away) one. Ask them how many are now left. Get them to say the number sentence 10 – 1 = 9. Then ask them to eat one more, how many are left now? And so on, until there are 0. Likewise, you can practice fractions using baking: divide cookies, cakes, pizzas, casseroles etc… Make note of how many pieces you are dividing it into, then what happens when you take a piece away, how many are left etc…
There is so much learning that can happen organically with math, and you’ll be amazed at the foundation you can lay for future formal academics just by focusing on everyday math and games in the early years. Studies show that by teaching math in this fashion – hands on, practical math only in the early years, your child will be farther ahead later on, than if they had started with workbooks etc…
Again, in the early years (which I and many others consider to be under the age of 7, but especially 5 & under), hands on, multi-sensory learning is best. Children do not need, and honestly, should not use, workbooks during these years. Keep it short, sweet, fun and multi-sensory, and you’ll have a child extremely well prepared for academics.