Four-year-old Brooke bursts through the door of her preschool to greet her mother, who hardly has to ask, "How was school today?" She can tell by the expression of sheer joy on her child's face that all is well — and that her daughter has something to tell her. "It was great, Mom! I put the pictures on the calendar and Abe was my partner when we went out to the playground! I learned a new, big word: extraordinary! I had an extraordinary day today, I can't wait 'til tomorrow."
Clearly Brooke is happy about her school, and her curiosity has been ignited. Her parents and teachers understand that successful learning depends on creating an open, supportive, engaging environment that meets a child's social, emotional, and cognitive needs. It is a process that begins at home at birth and continues at school in a safe and inspiring environment that is responsive to you, your child, and family. The key is good communication between your family and the teacher. Speak up! Express your hopes and fears. Describe your child's special qualities. When parents and teachers work together, extraordinary learning can happen!
Young children learn with more than just their minds — they learn through the integration of creative, social, and physical skills. Most important, before a child feels comfortable enough to tackle the thinking skills needed to learn the alphabet or explore a science experiment, her emotional and social needs must be met. Understanding the building blocks that form this social-emotional foundation — identity, security, and curiosity — will truly help you set the stage for a lifetime of learning.
Building a Strong Sense of Identity
One of the most important building blocks is a sense of identity — how your child sees herself within a group. She wants to feel that there is a place for her in a new setting and looks for familiar things she can identify with. Studies have found that children who have difficulty fitting in sometimes have problems with learning basic skills. Feeling part of a group gives children confidence, which allows them to tackle the more challenging work. Like adults, a child's sense of identity within a new group is key to her feeling a sense of belonging and comfort.
You probably already do things at home that are helping your child develop a strong sense of identity. Placing her name on her bedroom door or wall, her photos around the house, and her art on the refrigerator all contribute. This is also why teachers often ask you to send in family photos — it helps your child to define herself within the new group
The Three Rs of Security
A feeling of security, which comes from her knowing what to expect and what is expected of her, is essential to her learning. Enter the three Rs: ritual, routine, and rules. A predictable morning ritual, for example, is the perfect springboard for going off to school because it provides an emotional connection to home. Create a special morning "movement" — a fancy "high five," a secret handshake, a loving word phrase, or even a line from a song that is especially dear to you both. Use this to remind her that now it is time to say good-bye. The security of knowing the ritual begins to translate to the security of knowing you will be back later to get her.
Easy routines help your child gain a sense of understanding and empowerment. Clear rules help her know what is expected. It's fascinating how a child is more likely to abide by the rules if she has had a hand in creating them! Teachers find that cooperative rule setting creates not only a better-behaved class but also a sense of community in the group. This is because the children begin to feel a sense of ownership in the program instead of the teacher being the only one "in charge." At home, start a discussion at the dinner table. Ask each family member to suggest an important family rule. Talk about why each is important. Be prepared for some surprises. Sometimes kids' rules are stricter than your own! You will be mirroring a process your child's teacher is creating in school.
With all the routines and rules in a young child's life, it is important to simultaneously maintain a flexible attitude. Not every day is the same, and we don't react to things in the same way every day. While children need structure, they sometimes also need us to be willing to change that structure to fit their needs. Perhaps flexibility is sensitivity — the willingness to adapt to a child's personal needs. If you carefully observe and listen to your child, you will know when it is important to "bend" the rules or change the routine. Maybe your child needs to stay home from school and just be with you for the day. Being flexible now will help with your child's emotional growth for later learning.
Sparking Your Child's Curiosity
Once the social and emotional elements are in place, a child's curiosity often becomes the primary motivating factor for learning. Curiosity is the sense of wonder that inspires your child to ask "why?"
Adults can support and stimulate a child's sense of wonder by creating an atmosphere that sparks curiosity every day. Start by welcoming questions. When your child asks why, ask her what she thinks. Invite her to share why she thinks leaves turn yellow. Explain that there can be many answers. When she knows she can think creatively (and even fantastically) without the pressure of coming up with the "right" answer, she will use the essential higher-order skills of creative and flexible thinking. Remember, it is more important for preschoolers to wonder and imagine than to get the correct answer. Curiosity is a key element in brain development, and there is an important correlation between stimulating activities and healthy brain development. When you provide open-ended activities, you are inviting your child to use various parts of her brain.
What You Can Do at Home
Many of the activities your child's teacher creates can also be replicated at home, so you can reinforce what your child is learning at school.
- Create a curiosity corner. Designate a table or even a box near the kitchen counter where your child can explore new and unusual things while you cook dinner. The concept is to gather things for your child to look at that may be new to her. Try a beautiful leaf or stone, a piece of art, or an unusual building toy.
- Introduce a new word. Young children are curious about learning new words — the bigger the better! Teachers often choose a day each week to introduce a new word, and you can too. Try descriptive words, such as fantastic, or size words such as enormous or miniscule. Of course, kids also like to learn the names of things that they are interested in, such as Tyrannosaurus Rex! Talk about what the word means and encourage your child to use it, too. Using the word in everyday life will make it her own.
- Engage all senses. Put an unusual object, such as a big, beautiful shell or flower, in a clear plastic shoebox and invite your child to look at it without touching it. What happens when you look at it from the top, bottom, or sides? What do you notice that you didn't see before? Another time, put the object inside a bag for your child to explore and identify with only her sense of touch. Or, try making sounds with the object while you are hiding it behind a chair or a box. What can it be? How many different sounds can you make?
- Solve an "arty" problem. Problem solving is one of the key ingredients in acquiring cognitive understanding. The process of solving open-ended problems stimulates synaptic growth connections among the different centers of the brain and inspires children to use higher-order thinking skills. Art materials or recycled objects you have at home are excellent for inspiring experimentation. Try setting out old spools, six-pack rings, egg cartons, cereal and shoe boxes, or paper towel tubes that your child can explore independently — and artistically. You might ask, "How many ways can you use this material? Can you use the material to make something that hangs, something that is tall, or long, or something that rolls?"
For both parent and teacher, setting the stage for learning is a cooperative and ongoing effort. By always seeing each child as an individual who is also a part of a family and a classroom, you can keep the passion and momentum going all year.