0 to 2 by Carla Poole

AS SHE BONDS with each special person in her life, the newborn begins an incredible process of sensing the difference between those who are familiar and those who are new. This basic ability is a first step toward abstract thinking, and loving relationships are the foundation of baby's developing thinking skills. They give her the emotional energy and self-confidence she needs to begin active exploration.

Learning About the World

Infants and toddlers learn about the world through their senses - looking, touching, smelling, hearing, and, especially, tasting. Seven-month-old Kevin, for example, is busy trying to push a large plastic block into his mouth. Unfazed by the impossibility, he promptly begins mouthing and gumming each corner and edge. This is a baby's way of "reading" an object. Babies also get to know and remember people by using their senses -- exploring faces, pulling at hair, grabbing glasses, and poking fingers into mouths. All of this information travels into their rapidly growing brains. Time spent exploring toys and playing with people keeps the information flowing and babies learning.

A Little Help From My Toys

Toys that offer interesting challenges -- simple shape sorters or stacking rings - promote development by involving children in problem solving and experimenting. When a baby can take a toy apart and bang the pieces together, she feels like a competent explorer practicing important motor skills, such as hand-eye coordination. Gradually she learns to tolerate frustration, and her attention span begins to lengthen. Electronic toys that talk to a baby may keep her occupied for a while, but they don't offer the kind of hands-on manipulation she needs.

Peekaboo Pays!

Infant and toddler play is often dominated by children's attempts to internalize the concept of object and person permanence - the understanding that people and things continue to exist even when they are out of sight. Sixmonth-olds enjoy peekaboo games, which are good practice for learning that people and things can go away and come back yet still remain the same. As a baby turns one, he probably enjoys looking for hidden objects. Jason, for example, loves to play guessing games. His caregiver hides the teddy bear under a blanket and exclaims, "Where's teddy, Jason! Where did he go?" By lifting the blanket and grabbing up teddy, Jason is actively learning through physical experience that teddy remains the same even when he can't be seen - an important abstract concept essential for later learning.

Over, Under, Around, and Through

Toddlers learn about spatial relationships by moving their bodies in many different ways. Rachel, for example, exhilarated by active exploration, crawls under a table, sits in a large tub, and climbs the steps of the slide. Toddlers experience "under," "in," and "up" through movement, helping to define the words (as concepts) in their minds.

During children's second year, pretend play is an important first step toward using symbols or words to represent real events and people. For example, pretending to feed the dolly or push the stroller to the store are activities that help young children organize their thinking about daily experiences and then gradually begin to put those experiences into words.

The passionately busy play of toddlers becomes more focused at 30 months or so. At the same time, all the skills they have acquired through hands-on experiences are helping them to become more independent. As you know, very young children have amazing amounts of energy. Our goal is to help them channel that energy into engaging and stimulating activities - setting up a lifetime of pleasure in learning.

What You Can Do

Hands-on activities keep toddlers focused and extend their explorations.

Offer a variety of sensory experiences. Encourage toddlers to smear shaving cream on a table, poke their fingers into play-dough, make broad brush strokes with colorful paint on paper, and pour water into buckets.

Involve children in meaningful daily activities. Language and self-help skills blossom when two-year-olds have opportunities to participate in "real" activities such as cutting bananas, sponging off the table, and helping to sweep the floor.

3 to 4 by Susan A. Miller, Ed.D.

ACTIVE LEARNERS, preschoolers construct their knowledge of the world by engaging in play and interacting with others.

The Need to Touch

When required to sit still for 15 minutes at story time, three-year-old Jackson fidgets, unsnapping his shoes and letting you know he's bored. In contrast, given the opportunity to use his hands to place brightly colored pegs into the new Peg-Board, he concentrates, gleefully filling up all of the holes. Busy with learning, Jackson feels self-satisfaction, strengthening his finger muscles as he discovers the relationship between the parts and the whole.

In this preoperational stage, preschoolers need to use three-dimensional, tangible materials as play objects and to represent their ideas. Four-year-old Elizabeth strings small beads in a colorful blue-red-green pattern, then ties the "jewels" around her neck and announces she's off to dance at the ball. Three-year-old Deirdre picks the perfect cardboard tube to use as a candle for her baby's birthday cake.

Thinking by Doing

Many preschoolers are fascinated with the operations of counting, comparing, and classifying. Many threes can sort using one attribute but may become distracted as they work. Jackson, for instance, classifies seashells by color but then notices that some of the shells have very interesting pointy ends. Why not create a new pile for just that type? At four, however, Elizabeth can classify using more than one feature. During cleanup, she decides to put Legos in boxes by color and size. After completing the task, she explains the procedure to a friend.

This is also a time in children's lives when they are in the process of developing manual dexterity. While it's frustrating for some threes to try to "stay in the lines" when coloring, it's also unfair to expect them to do so. By four, some children are starting to write letters, especially those in their name, but the marks are often wobbly and all over the paper. Preschoolers still need lots of hands-on experience grasping, holding, squeezing, and playing with manipulative materials before tackling structured paper-and-pencil tasks.

What You Can Do

Tried-and-true hands-on activities are the key to preschool growth.

Provide unstructured activities that strengthen band-eye coordination.

Expose children to new and exciting materials. Encourage children to take apart an old telephone. Sort a colorful plastic-bug collection. Stimulate creative thinking as children play by asking open-ended questions and continually rotating materials.

Eliminate dittos, coloring books, and precut patterns. Instead, provide crayons, markers, many kinds and sizes of paper, and scissors. Encourage children to express themselves freely.

Give children time to explore and problemsolve. For instance, when children build block structures, they need time to develop ideas, cooperate with friends, evaluate their play, and have fun.

5 to 6 by Ellen Booth Church

"TEACHER, DID YOU KNOW this table is 8 books long and the bookcase is 9? I'm 7 books long, and Nathan is 6. How many books long are you? Maybe 10!"

In kindergarten a hands-on experience like this one naturally leads to the development of abstract thinking and processing skills. These five- and six-year-olds were experimenting with using books as a unit of measure. As they freely and open-endedly explored the concept of nonstandard measurement, they began to understand the application of theory and the potential for its use. They observed similarities and differences between the objects they were measuring. And although the books they used to measure with were far from standard size, the children were making the abstract connection between the object being measured and the tool they were using.

During this stage, children are developing the ability to hold information in their minds and then to use it to make comparisons. The process of making these comparisons is an important step in abstract thinking. For instance, in the fall this class had used apples as a nonstandard unit of measure and remembered that their teacher was more apples long than they were. They didn't remember how much longer, but they did realize that 10 books is more than 7 applying the concept then and later - which is abstract thinking at work!

It Just Makes Sense!

Developmentally, five- and six-year-olds are straddling the fence between concrete and abstract experiences. They're not ready to learn everything from pencil and paper and rote tasks but are able to see the connection between concrete experiences and abstract representation. Counting how many books long and representing that information on a chart or graph with stickers or tally marks is a key skill - recording a concrete experience in a pictorial or symbolic way. This is the beginning of tabulating, writing, and even future note taking.

Because their recordings are based on personal hands-on experiences, five- and six-year-olds are also able to refer back to their charts and "read" what they found out. Their simple symbols and pictures are akin to the alphabet and reading. Studies have found that when kindergartners create their own abstract symbolic recordings, they move into reading with greater ease and understanding.

What You Can Do

Classrooms alive with learning are filled with action and open-ended questions.

Provide opportunities for children to experiment with concrete materials and concepts in a multitude of ways. If children have experimented with filling different-size containers with water, encourage them to try again with sand, teddy bear counters, and crayons.

Invite children to compare not just materials but also hands-on experiences. Charts, graphs, photographs, and field books can all provide a bridge between the concrete and the abstract.

Encourage children to make predictions based on previous experiences. Record predictions so children can compare them with the results.

What to Expect Next

Historically, first grade has been the great divide between hands-on experiences and pencil-and-paper tasks. For many seven- and eight-year-olds, it is a major leap into the world of abstract reasoning, with fewer and fewer concrete experiences to support their thinking. Children definitely still need concrete experiences to inform abstract learning. Beginning to read may offer a greater variety of ways to represent information abstractly, but all too often children are asked to fill in only the right answer on ditto sheets.

Though first graders are capable of making the connection between concrete and abstract thinking more quickly and with increased understanding, many schools are applying what has been called "Teaching for Understanding" techniques all the way up through high school. Find out more about these opportunities for children to apply their understanding of content information in projects that involve open-ended experimentation in the Association of Supervision and Curriculum Development's journal Educational Leadership (February 1994).