Playing to Learn

Originally Published: April 1998

Long before official “school” begins, children’s play can provide opportunities for development in motor skills, language skills, and reasoning. Here are just a few ideas that will contribute to a strong foundation for later learning:

Motor Skills

Give your children plenty of opportunity to build muscular strength and coordination. Teach them proper form for movements: roll, crawl, walk, run, jump, hop, gallop, and dance. Let them practice throwing small balls and bean bags (one hand) as well as large balls (using both hands) and catching large balls. They can throw balls into clothes baskets, beginning up close and gradually increasing the distance between themselves and the target. You can make a simple obstacle course in the kitchen, having them move around chairs, and under the table. Don’t add the pressure of timing them or turning any of these activities into a competition.

Balance and an awareness of their own bodies can be aided by having them walk on a line (which can be made easily with chalk or tape) and jump over a line. Also have them Walk on tip toe, stand on one foot, and move like animals: an elephant, duck, seal, rabbit, and so on. Play music and teach them to move to the rhythm, imitate a rhythm by clapping, or tapping on a drum, and learn simple movements to accompany songs (like the hand movements to “Itsy Bitsy Spider,” or body movements to “I’m a Little Teapot”). Participating in a song with cymbals, triangles, wooden blocks, and/or bells are all helpful and fun at this age, as well.

Strengthen smaller muscles and improve coordination. Provide opportunities to paint, draw, and trace using large, easily held, brushes, crayons, markers, and pencils. Be sure to show them the proper grip and have them draw from the left side of the paper to the right side, or from the top to the bottom. This will smooth the transition to handwriting later. Other activities to encourage development of fine motor skills include cutting, pasting, placing pegs in pegboards, stringing beads, sewing (large plastic needles with prepunched picture cards are used at this age) and rolling clay to make simple coil bowls. Allow them to help in the kitchen-mixing cookie dough, rolling it out with a rolling pin, or rolling small bits of dough into balls. Provide small pitchers and containers that can be used in the tub or pool to practice pouring. Sandbox toys should include sifters, and various size scoops and containers for pouring sand.

Language Skills

Practice identifying sounds buildsskill in auditory discrimination necessary for reading. Have the children close their eyes as you blow a whistle, stamp your feet, or ring a bell, and let them tell you what they hear. Throughout the day or while taking a walk, stop and listen. Let them identify the sounds made by birds, lawnmowers, passing trucks, barking dogs, water boiling, a phone ringing, a door opening or closing, and so on.

Enhance visual memory skills with simple games. Begin with two very different objects. Have the children look for several seconds, then cover the objects and ask them to tell you what they just saw. Gradually increase the number of objects. Gradually use objects that are more similar in appearance. Eventually, pictures of objects can be used. Once they have succeeded in remembering a few items, encourage them to also remember the location. Have them look at the row of objects from left to right. Begin by pointing to the first in the row and saying “First is ____, then there’s ______” and later use the words first, second, third, and so on, as you point.

Read or tell a simple story with an obvious sequence of events, such as “The Three Pigs” and have them act it out. Act as a narrator in order to remind them of what to do and when, until they are able to repeat the sequence without help. For variety, let them use costumes or puppets. If they have a favorite story, occasionally pause and ask “What happens next?” Recall is important for later reading comprehension.

Provide opportunities to play with simple puzzles. At ages 2 1/2 and 3 they place one piece into the hole with the same shape. Eventually they progress to pictures made with five or six pieces that fit together. Let them copy patterns (moving left to right in a row) using colored pegs on a pegboard, beads to string, or even simple household objects. A three-year-old can be given three, four, and five objects to match to items you have put in a row. For example, line up a spoon, a can of beans, and a napkin. To one side have a group of five items which include a matching spoon, can, and napkin. The child would select each matching item, setting it in front of its mate in the row that you made.

Suit the length of time involved in the activity to the attention span of the child. It only takes a few seconds to have them tip toe, and a minute or two to match a row of objects. They can identify a few sounds while riding in the car, and hop a few steps on the way to the front door. You don’t need formal lesson plans or a separate teaching time, just the habit of encouraging children to do activities that are fun, but beneficial, here and there throughout the day.