By the time their children start preschool, many parents have big plans for their bright academic futures. But early reading, writing and math skills are actually less important than developing the social and emotional skills needed to cooperate, pay attention and be motivated to learn -- all of which are key to future success in life as well as school.
Like many parents, Anne-Marie Nichols of Longmont, Colo., was concerned that her four-year-old daughter might not be challenged enough in preschool. “At first, I was worried that Lucie might be bored,” she says. “She already has many of the skills that are taught in preschool. The joke is that she’d enroll in kindergarten tomorrow if she could.”
But Nichols understands the importance of having social skills along with academic smarts because of her experience with her older son. “Nathan is an innately good reader and speller, but he was sent home three times from kindergarten due to behavioral issues,” she says.
Skillful teachers will help guide young children in how to make friends, cooperate and cope with frustration. “If preschool only focuses on how quickly a child can learn facts and figures, he may be able to spit out answers in the short run but in the long run won’t have the confidence, interest or ability to apply those skills in new situations,” says Marilou Hyson, Ph.D., author of The Emotional Development of Young Children: Building an Emotion-Centered Curriculum (Teachers College Press) and former preschool and kindergarten teacher.
“We all know adults who are intelligent but lack the ability to collaborate with co-workers, maturely handle frustrations and follow through with projects,” says Hyson. “Ultimately, preschool teachers -- and parents -- should try to create a satisfied and balanced life.”
Here are steps you can take to help your toddler’s continued social learning at home:
- Don’t rush A good preschool program will provide enough time for children to engage in an activity -- about a half hour or longer. Teachers promote this engagement to help toddlers learn to focus on one activity, like watching a movie or playing a game in a group, without becoming easily sidetracked. And the same should hold true at home. Let your child take his time building with blocks. By doing so, he is not only understanding shapes and spatial relationships, but learning how to work independently and focus his attention for longer periods of time.
- Think outside the box Learning happens in many situations that are not “educational,” so find activities that are interesting and enjoyable for both of you. Maybe it’s preparing a treat together -- chocolate chip cookies are always a favorite. While you handle the baking and pouring and she helps with the mixing, play a mini-game of “memory” by asking questions like: “How many eggs did we use? What did we put in before that? Let’s count together.” Be sure to stress the importance of taking turns and working together and show that the process is just as, if not more, important than the final, delicious outcome.
- Make learning a game Practice his “academic” skills by making reading time into a silly game of mad libs, with your preschooler filling in the missing words or phrases of well-known stories. You can engage him by asking: “If you were a very hungry caterpillar, what would you eat?” This will not only increase vocabulary skills, but help your child discover that there are many correct answers to the same question, as well as give him more confidence to express himself.
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