By Guest Blogger Laura Handler

First a Teacher, then a “First Teacher”

Having been an educator for over a decade, nothing has been more fascinating to me than watching the development and learning of my own child day by day, minute by minute. Whether it was a physical milestone, a language acquisition, or an emotional expression, the accomplishment arriving in a single moment has had the captivating power of slowing down, or at least stretching out, of time–one of the greatest gifts of parenting. So many times my husband or I will say to the other, “Did you teach him that?” or “Where did he pick up on that?” Usually it was in awe of some new word or connection (“Mmm, that’s tasty!”). Occasionally, it was more in blame of a new word or habit (insert chosen expletive or undesirable phrase here).

Almost three years have passed since our son was born, and believe it or not, that means about 80% of brain growth has already occured (thanks, NPRed)! Many cities around the nation are focusing on this critical period for supporting child development, backed by plentiful research on the topic (read about initiatives launched by experts in Boston and Charlotte). Personally, as my son has developed, I’ve also recognized the privileged upbringing he’s had growing up healthy with plenty of family support emotionally an economically. As I mentioned, my experience in elementary education found me translating some of those early reading lessons into daily life at home. Perhaps some of these ideas will prompt some of your own adaptations for playtime!

Language is more than reading (and books)! Reading, writing, speaking, and listening are all language modalities offering learning fun. Music, rhymes, tongue twisters, and especially conversation (though it will clearly feel one-sided for awhile) are all delightful to a baby’s ears. There are so many sources of music these days to offer great variety in tunes and languages, and the one class that we did was Music Together. Double dip to increase a love of books–my child loved listening to/reading Wheels on the Bus, even in another language, because he was so familiar with the tune! While we really tried* to limit screen use until he turned two, now the Cat in the Hat and Magic School Bus series on Netflix are on our tv pretty regularly, and he’s hearing all sorts of great vocabulary and expressions. This brings us back to the print version–thanks again to our public library, hot on his bedtime request list are the Magic School Bus books we’ve been borrowing.

What’s in a name? Lots of environmental print connections! Casey learned to recognize and spell his name pretty early, largely due to all the cards we signed for our ginormous family (hand over hand as I explained, “C-A-S-E-Y spells ‘Casey’!”). A favorite memory was watching him at his easel drawing independently and making marks, talking to himself and saying those exact words, “C-A-S-E-Y spells ‘Casey’!” We had the foam letters for the bathtub, the magnets for the fridge, and looked for letters on all the road trips we took and in all the lines we waited. The last pages of Chicka Chicka Boom Boom offered a natural opportunity to sing the alphabet song as we pointed to the letters. We changed the words of “B-I-N-G-O” to spell out C-A-S-E-Y for some silly singing, and dear friends gave us the book The Little Boy Who Lost His Name, which provided added exposure to those magical letters which we then looked for elsewhere throughout our day and travels.

Interactive read alouds: Admittedly, one aspect of parenting that needs a little work is our nap/bedtime routine. As a result, our child may have gotten away with a few more books read to him to help lull him to sleep…we’re still working on it (and since he’s our only child, he’s been spoiled with undivided attention at bedtime). But the modeling is something he’s clearly taken to, evident from him being content to “read” books on his own as well as repeat questions or prompts I’ve asked while reading (we can’t read Cat in the Hat or Ted without him pointing out how sad the character looks on certain pages and explaining why). Our library offers workshops on “active reading”, and while it’s hard sometimes to get through books without a ton of questions or comments that delays bedtime even more, we try to encourage the observation of illustrations and the questioning of characters/events as much as possible.

The magic of learning, books, and the library! Like many toddlers, my child became enamored with fire trucks, airplanes, diggers, and the like pretty quickly. While we have plenty of books at home, we tend to have been given more fictional picture books. To fuel his interests, we headed to the library to the nonfiction section, so that he now distinguishes between ladder trucks and pumper trucks, looks for the number of engines on plane (watching them on the runway is a favorite Saturday morning pastime). After watching the movie Sing! there was a spike in love for his koala stuffed animal, so we learned more about koalas (that one was regrettably short-lived and now instead I know exactly how planes are made). My point is to look for a variety of books, in genre, in style, and even in reading level. They may not all make for the best “bedtime story”, but importantly encourages that love of learning (and books as sources of information, rather than google searches!). The more connections you can foster between reading and daily life increases the relevancy of reading and learning, as opposed to the lamentable associations with reading and bubble sheets that come with schools and testing.

Finally, while some of my teacher lessons influenced what we do at home, my husband deserves the credit for imaginative play and making some of this learning come alive. He’s much more willing than I am to name the stuffed animals, to build the cardboard spaceship, and spark the imagination. Remember, every family, every parent, every child has different circumstances, interests, strengths, and personalities that influence what we do. Hopefully these ideas provided a few ideas, or even reminders, of new activities or things to do with your child. Got another idea that’s worked for you? Please share below! Happy learning!


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