By Shannon Messenger, Early Learning Specialist

Some of the best learning your child does occurs everyday in his/her home environment. By talking to and with them, doing chores with them, reading to them, explaining things to them and allowing them to have free exploration time, you are setting a foundation for your child’s learning that can last a lifetime. Before I list some of my tried-and-true methods for teaching early reading, language, math, music, and science concepts (without buying special curriculum or even altering your everyday schedule!), let me first address the giant push for early childhood learning and academics that has occurred in the past decade.

Twenty years ago babies and toddlers were not really considered when it came to meaningful learning activities. New research has shown, however, that there is a window from birth to age 3 when children have the ability to learn more than they do for the rest of their lives! Connections in brain synapses are occurring at an astonishing rate – and sometimes just by exposure to something. Because of this research, more and more schools are making an effort to provide professional schooling for toddlers. Programs that promise to teach your baby to read, or teach your child a second language, are advertised on infomercials. Kindermusic classes are popping up in every neighborhood. Is this bad? Not necessarily, as long as we remember that children have been learning in the toddler/preschool stage of life since the beginning of time. They have been learning from their parents and families many concepts that were just taken for granted. After completing a Bachelors degree in Elementary Education, I went on to pursue a Masters in Early Childhood Education as well as becoming certified in teaching birth through age 3. During this time (and after becoming a parent to three beautiful children), I became very passionate about everyday learning – learning through play and natural experiences. Many of the things we do every day have an amazing impact on even the youngest of children. So below are the things I recommend in these early years. May God richly bless you as you mother and teach your children and make your home and family a priority!

Infant stage: Talk to your baby. It may sound simple, but they will learn all about language and sounds by listening to your voice. Talk in “parentese,” the high-pitched cooing way parents talk to their babies. Babies love it – there’s a reason we naturally talk that way – it’s what they respond to best! When they start to coo, coo back and then pause and wait for them to respond. This way they learn about pauses and taking turns in conversation. Talk to them about what you are doing throughout the day. “I am making some lunch for mommy. Then we will eat.” The more they hear – the more they absorb. Some people even teach their older infants sign language for a few simple words like eat, milk, more, all done, please, and no. I will stress, though, that you must use the spoken word with the signed word and make sure that they are learning to speak and not just use the sign.

Toddler stage: Toddlers are just developing their language skills. They are starting to put words together to make simple sentences and thoughts. It takes much patience when trying to decipher toddler speak, but the reward is worth it. You are showing them that words matter and that what they say is important. Repeat what they say back to them. Although some of their mispronunciations are cute, try to correct what they say. Don’t tell them they are wrong; repeat back using the proper pronunciation. (Your child says “I want anana” and you say “You want a banana?”)

Preschool stage: At this stage they can start to learn the importance of their words. They learn that words are not only used to get what they want, but they are used for interaction. You can teach them to use their words to express how they feel (sad, mad, angry, happy, excited, etc.) This expands their vocabulary and helps them learn to use language instead of actions to convey meaning. Model for them by stating how you feel, or describe something using different words: “This food is delicious – delicious means it tastes good!” They can also begin to understand written words and language. Here they begin to recognize the alphabet (starting with letters in their name) and then learn that those letters put together make words. Make simple grocery lists with a picture as well as a word and let them check off items in the store. (This also helps keep little hands busy with constructive work.) Use environmental print – the words and logos from cereal boxes, restaurants, TV shows, etc. Cut out pictures of items from catalogs and fliers and let them glue them into a “book” that they can “read.” They can recognize far more things than we usually give them credit for.

The best thing you can do for your child is to read to him or her every day. Starting in infancy, reading DAILY to your child teaches many things.

Infant stage: Babies respond to the “sing song” of your voice. They begin to sense the patterns and rhymes of stories. Holding them on your lap and looking at the pictures strengthens their bond with you as well as teaching them that books are important.

Toddler stage: Again they learn about rhyming and meanings of words. They learn that we read left to right, we turn the page, and that the words on the page have meaning. You can also begin to leave familiar words out and let them help “read” the story. Nursery rhymes in particular are proven to teach many important rhythms in reading. This is the stage when children want to read the same book over and over and over. Although this can seem boring – the children are actually learning quite a lot. By rereading something familiar, they are free to build on concepts and learn new things (much the same way we see new things after viewing a movie more than once). You can also have them point to objects in the pictures to help them learn colors, shapes, animals, and other visual vocabulary. Reading before naps or bedtime helps establish routines that are so very important to toddlers.

Preschool stage: Preschoolers build on the idea that words have meaning. Begin pointing along the words as you read them. Point out or have them find letters, especially letters from their name. You can have them sequence the events of a story – ask what happened first, second, next and last. Read fables or fairy tales and discuss consequences, cause & effect, right & wrong, and ask why. Children will also have a lot of “why” questions at this age and books can provide the answers to many questions. Books can also be used to allay their new-found fears. There are plenty of books about visiting the doctor, dentist, hospital, having a new sibling, thunderstorms & weather, monsters or other scary creatures. This age is full of learning opportunities, and books can be one of your best allies. Science, math, social and religious concepts can all be taught through books. Reading together reinforces loving bonds and shows your child that they are important to you because you stop what you are doing and read with them.

When people hear the term “math” they automatically think of numbers and computation, but there are MANY equally important math concepts formed in early childhood that don’t involve memorizing numerals or learning to count.

Infant stage: Count their toes and fingers (while kissing of course!) and sing songs like “One little, two little, three little fingers, four little, five little, six little fingers, seven little, eight little, nine little fingers, ten fingers on your hands!” (or toes!) Use foam shapes in the bath tub and identify colors and shapes.

Toddler stage: There are many things you can use to teach math concepts to toddlers. Continue using bath shapes and colors but you can also add letters and numbers. Wooden blocks or LEGOs can be a very important tool in counting, making patterns, sorting, and grouping. Sorting and making patterns are two very important concepts. Toddlers can sort laundry, sort socks by color, sort silverware and put it away, and sort their toys into different toy bins. They can count their toys, count their goldfish crackers, count the stuffed animals on their beds, count their cars or dolls. They can line toys, blocks or household items from shortest to tallest. You can talk about small, medium and large.

Preschool stage: Preschoolers will continue to build on the concepts of patterns and sequence. They can play matching games with magazine pictures, socks, playing cards, blocks and more. They can do more complex pattern activities. Have them start finding what would come next in a pattern you have made, then transition to them making their own patterns (use toy animals, blocks, beads, foam shapes etc.). At this stage they can also begin to identify numerals and count. Learning one-to-one correspondence (counting one time for each object) is easily learned using egg cartons. They can count almost anything and even though it may take time- they WILL be learning the concept that a number represents something. Games like Candyland, Chutes & Ladders and Dominoes help with counting. Keep track of the date on the calendar together. They can sort and graph Gummi bears or M&Ms. You can measure things – let them help measure laundry detergent or ingredients for cooking. You can also measure their feet, hands, heads and height. Give them rulers or measuring tapes and let them experiment. Cooking is one of the best things to do with children. They can begin to read certain words or ingredients, help measure, understand time concepts using a timer, and follow the sequence of the directions. Talk about what happens first, second & last. These may seem meaningless, but they are laying many important foundations for math problems and equations in the future.

Infant stage: Babies learn a lot about the physical world they live in. They learn very early about day/night, cold/hot and cause/effect. They learn about their bodies. Read simple stories that talk about their body parts (Here Are My Hands is my personal favorite). Wash their body, kiss their body parts and name them. Sing “This is the way we wash our feet (hair, hands, belly, face, etc.) when we take a tubby!”

Toddler stage: Toddlers can learn anywhere! The bath tub is a great place to learn science and math. Give them lots of cups, containers and toys. They will learn about things that float and things that do not. They will learn that bigger containers hold more water. Containers with holes lose their water. Don’t rush bath time – let them splash and experiment and play. Play with plastic animals and name them. Sort them. Play farm and zoo. Talk about what the animals eat, where they live, what they look like. Toddlers LOVE animals and there is so much they can learn. Let them play outside as much as possible and let them explore dirt, insects, leaves, streams (with supervision), weather, sand, rocks and more! They will be constantly absorbing things through their senses.

Preschool stage: Preschoolers again expand on earlier concepts. You can let them keep track of the weather every day. Help them observe the seasons and identify the signs of changing seasons. They will learn more about their bodies and can learn to identify more complex body parts and what they do (shin, elbow, eyebrows, wrist, etc.). They will still learn best through play and exploration. Water and sand play continue to teach measurement concepts. Let them observe what happens to an ice cube in the sun, construction paper in the sun, water in the freezer and more! Show them life cycles of animals – butterflies, spiders, chickens. Let them use all five senses and compare and contrast.

Music is one of the most universal teaching methods available. You can invent songs to teach everything from washing hands, cleaning up toys, counting, opposites and more! I use music and songs every day. My toddler responds much better to the clean-up song than to a direct command to “clean up your toys.” Music helps make connections in the brain that even scientists don’t fully understand. People of all ages respond to music.

Infant stage: Sing to your baby often. Soothe them with a hymn or lullaby. The repetition of a song or melody is soothing to a child and helps establish rhythms and patterns that are so important in early development. Use an electronic device or attach a music machine to the crib. This can teach even a small baby that when a certain song plays or the music is turned on, it’s time for sleep. Plus the music that you sing attunes them to your voice and increases the bond between parent and child. (Singing is for dads too!)

Toddler stage: Toddlers love music. Period. Not only do they enjoy hearing music, they enjoy making music too! This is the perfect time to teach them the classic songs of childhood such as Old MacDonald, The Wheels on the Bus, Twinkle Little Star, etc. They love the easy rhymes and repetition. Again, this helps form connections in the brain so they can better remember. Allow them to play instruments. These do not have to be store-bought. They can be coffee can drums with wooden spoons or rice in plastic eggs for shakers. Put on music and let them march, play and keep the beat.

Preschool stage: Preschoolers can sing many songs. They can combine movement with their music: hopping, skipping, galloping. They can move slowly or quickly. They can work on concepts like soft and loud, higher and lower, and learn a musical scale. Choose a tune to help them learn their address or telephone number as well the months of the year, the days of the week or the letters in their name.