You may think that you can put off math, science and literacy till your little one is much older. But it’s entirely possible to give them a head start before they even start school. How? Through play, of course.
Play remains the best way to help toddlers and preschoolers learn. And whether it’s building blocks or puzzles, if you choose toys and activities that allow for hands-on exploration, you’ll develop their intellectual ability, way before kindergarten. Here’s how.
Build early math skills through play
Look for opportunities in the day to introduce your child to numbers – counting steps, for example, or how many red cars your child sees on the way to the store.
Building blocks especially have been proven to improve math skills as kiddies get ready for kindergarten. A recent Purdue University study, published in Early Childhood Quarterly, found that playing with building blocks improved math skills such as numeracy, shape recognition and even mathematical language among children aged 3 to 5 years.
52-Piece Daydream Castle Building Blocks, 12 months+ ($34.99)
But the key, says the study, is to semi-structure how your children play with their blocks – rather than place them on the floor and walk away, give them a goal, like asking them to build a tower, to really build their skills.
Similarly, dominoes also build early math skills, including number recognition, counting, and creating and recognizing patterns.
Busy Barnyard Reversible Dominoes Matching Game, 12 months+ ($13.99)
Sit with your little one and encourage them to find matching tiles and stack them together. Or write numbers on pieces of paper and ask them to match up the number with the correct tile. Ask, “How many dots do you see on this domino?”, or even encourage them to count out the number of tiles.
The same Purdue University study also found that puzzles are another highly engaging way of teaching 3-5 year olds early mathematical skills, as well as spatial thinking. Puzzles challenge little ones to reach a goal – completing it – and their minds will come up with strategies to do just that.
Busy Barnyard Inset Jigsaw Puzzle, 3 years+ ($9.99)
Encourage science learning in the toddler years
Children are already naturally fascinated by science – in fact, they’re conducting their own experiments daily without even realizing it – and there are many simple ways to tap into their curiosity, encourage their exploration and investigations, and hone their scientific thinking while they’re still toddlers.
Messy or sensory play is perfect for seeing, touching, smelling and feeling different textures – you can leave them to play open-ended with sand or water tables, play doh or mud, or sit with them and talk about what they’re experiencing.
By playing with water or sand, toddlers learn about physics (flow, motion), biology (plant and animal life), and math (volume, measurement, weight). Improvise with what you have at home – empty containers, cups, measuring jugs – and let them play in the bathtub, at a water table, or even with a large plastic tub filled with fine sand or water (be sure to supervise them at all times).
Dr. Maple’s Medical Kit, 3 years+ ($24.99)
Role-playing kits are also ideal for teaching about science in a fun way. This doctor’s kit, for example, includes wooden, child-friendly doctor’s tools that offer plenty of teachable moments about health, the human body, temperature and even the nervous system. Our popular veterinary kit, Dr. Pine’s Pet Hospital Veterinary Kit, serves the same purpose.
Another wonderful avenue for this kind of early learning is getting outdoors into nature. Bring science to life when you go on a hike together, or set off on a nature treasure hunt, showing them different plants and leaves, talking about changing seasons, animal habitats, or inspecting bugs on a fallen log.
Alternatively, you could help them start a family vegetable garden, or fall back on that childhood favorite… growing a bean in a cup or a jar. Give your child the responsibility of watering it and making sure it has enough sunlight. Track its growth through the different stages, talking to them about what plants need to grow, the different parts of the plant and its life cycle.
Develop your toddler’s speech and language skills
Language development is essential, and though it is complex, most children are able to easily speak their home language by the time they’re 4 years old. There are activities, toys and games that you can use to really grow vocabulary at a young age, but the most important contributing factor in language development is conversation. So go ahead and ask them questions, discuss shapes and colors, and give them new words to broaden their vocabulary.
Reading, of course, remains a phenomenal introduction to the world of words – and reading together creates so many opportunities for language development (and bonding!). Books will show them how words are used in context, and if they don’t understand something, help them figure it out by looking for clues in accompanying pictures or illustrations.
Saddle Up Barn and Stable, 3 years+ ($59.99)
Role playing and pretend play, especially on play dates with other children, are also ideal vocabulary-building opportunities. A police station playset or dollhouse will have your child acting out scenarios and mimicking adult conversations and sentence structure.
Similarly, play kitchens or play kitchen accessories serve the same purpose. Talk with your child about ingredients, the cooking process, where food comes from – interacting with them in a way that is fun, creative, open-ended and a learning experience.
Baker’s Mart Ingredient Set, 3 years+ ($17.99)
Should you wish, you could also try out more traditional speech development games, such as Scrabble Junior (currently out of stock), the Brain Quest series, and flashcards. Or you could create letter collages, where you select a letter of the alphabet, and then ask your child to find and paste images of objects that begin with that letter on a poster or page.
Your child’s early life is ripe with learning opportunities. And by stimulating them with safe, challenging play, you can intrigue them into a world of exploration!