The malls are all decked with holiday décor, and whether we're ready or not, "toy season" is here. As you might expect, books are one of my favorite gift choices, but I also think its fun to sneak in something that doesn't look like it is related to reading.
Did you know the ABCs of learning to read doesn't begin with letters? It's true. Much of what we as adults tend to dismiss as "just playing" is really the brain's way of organizing and putting together the building blocks that kids later use for learning to read. There is a lot of science (link to Reading Online article, ©2000, International Reading Association) to support the idea that playing is a very effective way for kids to build lots of skills, reading being one of them. Trevor Cairney has additional links and some tips for encouraging simple play at Families, Literacy and Learning, too.
This week, I thought I would pull together some ideas for ways to give the gift of reading that don't require batteries, computers, flashcards, or workbooks.
Encourage your Artist in Residence - Every toddler and preschooler I've ever met loves to play with crayons, markers, chalk, and paint. Giving kids the tools to create their masterpieces ultimately feeds into their reading. First, they can tell you fantastic, often very elaborate stories about those abstract versions of castles and dinosaurs, flowers and houses. Second, it also gives them practice in recognizing and drawing shapes. What does that have to do with reading?
Well, let's look at the letter b. It has two shapes: a line and a circle. The process of turning those early squiggles into straight lines and misshaped lumps into a circle is a precursor to being able to put the two objects together to create that "b." Before you know it those waves that mean "I love you. You're the best Mom in the world" will transform themselves into letters and lots more love notes that don't require translation!
Promote your Little Detective - Just as kids need to recognize the parts that comprise a letter, they also need to know what makes them different. When they're building a puzzle, they are looking for those types of clues ... one of the stepping stones of reading. That same stick and circle not only make a "b," but they are used for a "d" and a "p" as well. Putting together picture puzzles gives kids practice in finding shapes that fit together and pick them out from those that don't. It also lets them practice separating the "trees from the forest" and what makes sense (or doesn't). Does the tree branch really connect to the top of the sheep's head? Look for puzzles with pieces that range from 2 to 4 inches, are easy for a young child to manipulate, connect with "buttons and holes," and have just a few elements to the picture. Not the ones with 60+ pieces, varied shapes, and subtle distinctions (like 15 striped hot air balloons).
Add a Little Exercise - Studies (link to February 2008 Education Week article, PDF) show that there is a direct correlation between vigorous physical activity and learning. One of the best things to happen to my second grader this year is that she has PE before having to settle into math (a subject she struggles with). She concentrates better, she comprehends more, and she is more confident in her ability to learn. When kids get that heart pumping and use their "big muscles" - be it with jump ropes, jungle gyms, trampolines, hopscotch, basketball, soccer, or just running around - they are preparing their minds to focus. If you're looking for something to go along with your exercise ideas, Susan Stephenson of The Book Chook created a downloadable book of skipping and clapping rhymes, songs, chants, and games from her Literacy on the Playground (pdf) series. Speaking of songs ...
Mix in some Music - You can find children's music in every genre. The sillier the better ... at least from their perspective! The lyrics in kids' songs let them hear language in new ways, whether it is a made-up word or just a really big one. The rhythm, rhyme, and repetition all help with vocabulary.
These are just a few of the ideas of ways to mix in some "literacy toys" this holiday. When it comes to kids, their imagination and energy, there is no limit to where they can - and want to go! We were all born with an insatiable appetite to discover and learn, and there are so many ways we can encourage that and still meet our goals of turning our little ones into successful readers. If you've got some ideas, please add them below. I know one elf who would appreciate the help!
child's drawing and girl swinging - (c) Terry Doherty
puzzle pieces - Microsoft ClipArt, modified