C & G Publishing

Website Login

Metro Detroit

March 5, 2014

Building little learners

How to engage children in learning right from the start

By Tiffany Esshaki
C & G Staff Writer

» click to enlarge «
Helen Feng, 6, holds up the origami flower she successfully completed during a program at the Troy Public Library.

A child will have many teachers over the course of their life, but none more important than their own parents.

That’s why it’s important for learning to begin at home, long before a child ever sets foot in a classroom. Experts say that there are plenty of ways to engage children between two and five years old, and tap into their learning potential so that, one day, they’ll be able to get the most out of their school days.

The first way to do that is to find out what your child likes and wants to know more about, according to Lisa Bottesi, lower school
admission counselor for the Roeper School.

“Follow your children’s passions, whatever those are. Young children are naturally very inquisitive and curious. That brings about a love of learning,” explained Bottesi. “Say your child is into dinosaurs. Help them go to the library or take them to the science museum. Help them continue to explore and investigate. They’ll learn that learning is valued and appreciated.”

Even everyday tasks can turn into an educational adventure, Bottesi said. Playing games like “I spy” at the super market or drawing pictures of what they see on a trip to the park can all be considered bona fide homework.

“Find opportunities in everyday life,” she said. “If children are eager and happy to come to school, they learn at an early age that learning is fun. And children who are excited to come to school — that’s what we love.”

Even if you can’t find opportunities for a little learning time while children are young, it’s important to create those opportunities. That includes story time, as often as possible, says Fitzgerald Public Schools Superintendent Barbara VanSweden. The former kindergarten teacher said that reading and being read to are key factors in a child’s literacy education.

“Read to them and listen to them read. It’s incredibly powerful,” said VanSweden. “It stimulates creative thinking, shows them different words used in different contexts — that’s all part of the process.”

She explained that when young children are learning to read, they often memorize books that are read to them and recite them. But, she said, in the process, they’re identifying words and matching them to the story they’ve remembered. Suddenly, you’ve got an early reader who can apply those basic skills to other stories.

In addition to reading together, parents and kids need to do a little reading of their own. VanSweden said it’s essential that children see their loved ones reading and writing as part of their everyday routine, so they know to make it a part of theirs.

“Kids learn a lot from us, especially when we don’t realize they’re watching us. It’s important that kids see parents reading the mail, reading a newspaper, reading an article online, writing a shopping list,” she said, adding that two-way conversation is another key skill that should be engaged throughout each day. “(Teachers) can tell when that oral language hasn’t been encouraged. We know when that doesn’t happen and it puts the child at a great disadvantage.”

Bottesi agreed. She said a part of school is not just learning to read, write and count, but also to socialize and communicate. If social skills are lacking, then the academics likely won’t be as sharp as they could be.

“Let them run, let them play, and let them go outside without a purpose and have that unscheduled play time. When kids play freely, they learn from each other to compromise, how to speak to others, how to navigate the ebbs and flows of friendship, and hear somebody else’s viewpoint. Those are critical skills they’ll need at school to be socially adept.”

A few basic life skills could come in handy, as well. Life is a little easier for preschool teachers and students alike when kids know how to put their own coats and shoes on at the end of the school day. Most parents can likely confirm that the learning process is long, especially when it comes to tasks like tying shoes, but the pride they’ll get by doing it themselves is well worth the trouble.

When it comes down to it, both educators recommend giving even young children a little independence at home before they head off to school on their own. Let your student hold their own marker to write or draw, even if it seems like only scribbles to you. And while most parents try to keep running to a minimum, a little bit could actually be a good idea. Those activities develop motor skills, which could help a child succeed at school while increasing their confidence.

“They can’t learn to draw or cut unless they’ve been given scissors or a marker. We’re so reluctant to let them do that, but why? Why not let them mix the Play-Doh colors? That’s early science when kids learn how to mix colors,” said Bottesi. “Kids learn best through active engagement.”

You can reach C & G Staff Writer Tiffany Esshaki at tesshaki@candgnews.com or at (586)498-1095.