Saturday, September 11, 2010

Teaching Babies and Toddlers

Richele posted a comment on Evie's 22 month post asking about our schedule and my methods for teaching Evie, so this post is in response! Thanks, Richele, for the suggestion because I enjoyed writing this.

However, I am also hesitant. I'm a first-time mom to a toddler and my teaching background is with teenagers, so I am far from an expert. But I always enjoy reading about what other moms do with their kids, and often get ideas from them, so I'm happy to share my thoughts in that spirit and not as an authority on the subject. Please read my tone here as conversational, not as preachy. I am under no illusions that Evie is "gifted," especially since I tell her many times a day to take the (pencil, toy, rock, etc.) out of her mouth and remind her that we eat food and play with toys, not the other way around. If she were gifted, wouldn't she have figured that out by now? Anyhow.

First, our schedule. There's really nothing special about our routine, compared to the average SAHM (stay at home mom), except that not every SAHM gets out of the house with her kid(s) as much as I do. We go somewhere (playdate, park, swimming, shopping, etc.) almost every day, usually in the morning.

It's as much for Evie's stimulation and socialization as it is for my sanity. Since she was an infant, she's been a social butterfly and tends to get cranky when we stay home all day. My mom says I was the same way and would cry as she carried me back over the threshold back into our house, while Evie tends to whine in the car when we make the turn into our neighborhood and she realizes we're headed home (of course this is usually headed home for lunch and nap, so she might just be starting her nap protest).

As we eat breakfast each morning, Evie inevitably asks me "go bye bye?" and I tell her where we are going that day. Sometimes I tell her our schedule the night before, and then she'll prompt me at breakfast "go park?" or "go simmin? (swimming)." We rarely go anywhere further than 20 minutes away, so her time in the car isn't too bad.

Anyhow, I don't have a specifically scheduled time during the day to sit down and teach Evie anything. Instead, I try to use teachable moments throughout the day. Catching a teachable moment is like catching quiet alert time with a newborn. I think toddlers learn best when they are alert, but not hyper, and calm, but not tired. For Evie, these moments happen when she is focused on something, like having a conversation with me, playing with a specific toy or reading a book. Sometimes I'm too busy or distracted to notice her mood, but often enough I do take advantage of those moments to teach a new word, demonstrate a fine motor skill or reinforce something else that she's learning.

As far as teaching goes, it's challenging for me to write down a set of things I do because most of it is automatic/intuitive. My mother is an early childhood educator and did many of these techniques with me when I was a pre-schooler. Although I don't remember much of my early childhood, I think that I must have unconsciously learned from her? Anyhow, after thinking about this a lot I think there are 4 general principles that I follow as a "baby teacher."

1. Follow the child's natural interest; everything is easier to learn when you're interested in it, no matter what age you are.
Example: A couple of months ago, Evie's favorite books were Angelina Ballerina's Shapes and Todd Parr's The Silly Book of Shapes. She also loved to play with her shape sorter. So I started pointing out shapes to her in the world while we were out and about, and identifying the shapes of other things she played with. I didn't push the issue, just followed her interest and supplied the words she needed. Now she can identify and name all of the basics (circle, square, triangle, heart, star) and also some harder ones (oval, rectangle, diamond).

2. Learning is fun and fun is learning; for toddlers, play is their job, it's the primary way they learn anything.
Example: When we are at the park playing, I have the opportunity to teach Evie about:
  • looking right and left when we cross the street
  • grass is soft and cement is hard
  • you're swinging up and down
  • going up 1 2 3 4 5 steps
  • let's go down the red slide and then the blue slide
  • be careful because that baby is littler than you
  • that boy can swing on the monkey bars because he's bigger than you
  • keep your hat on to protect your eyes from Mr. Sun
  • it's hotter in the sun and cooler in the shade
  • if you put your feet down you'll go slower on the slide and if you pick them up you'll go faster
  • the sign says n-o-s-m-o-k-i-n-g "No Smoking"
  • etc.
3. General principle: Books. Lots and lots of books.

Example: We've been reading Goodnight Moon to Evie every night since she was 6 months old or so, and she's gone through many phases with it. At first she was unimpressed, then went through a phase where it was the only book she'd sit still for. Then she was bored with it, and then figured out the game of finding the mouse and was fascinated once more. After another phase of tolerating it, now she has developed an interest in the text and will point to the words and say "A B E C L M P X Y" or something to that effect. One night last month she pointed to the words on one page and correctly said "Goodnight stars." Of course she can't read, but she has memorized the words to this book from constant repetition and has now linked the picture, text and phonics together, which is a step toward learning to read some day. Most recently, she likes to hear us read the book to her while she nuzzles in our necks with her blankie. It's so familiar that she doesn't care about the pictures any more. But when we are drawing pictures with crayons she asks us to draw her a pink moon, and then she says "goodnight pink moon." She has many books in her library, but her intimate relationship with this one book has given her the opportunity to relate to it in many different ways.

4. Sing. Songs use rhyme, rhythm and the vocal instrument to exaggerate and emphasize phonics, grammar and storytelling. Thus, they lay the groundwork for future reading skills. They also get a child's attention, so they are a great distraction from misbehavior.

Example: Awhile back we were reading books at bedtime and telling Evie that her Nana and Papa would arrive for a visit the next day, which ended in J and I singing a duet of "Tomorrow" from Annie. Evie did not criticize our pitch. Anyhow, now anytime I tell her something will happen "tomorrow" she starts singing "Tu-marra, tu-marra, I lub ya, tu-marra!" in jubilant tones. It's cute and silly, but it is helping her learn the concept of future time, and delayed gratification.

In the comments, I'd love to hear from everyone else about their techniques for teaching little ones.


  1. Ha! You're so right about finding the quiet, teachable moments. There are those special times throughout the day when Snippet is so tuned in, and then other times when his only response is this ridiculous growling/roaring sound. (In his teenage years, I think this will translate to: "Mo-o-o-om, leave me aLONE!"

    My favorite technique for teaching Snippet is using sing-song explanations. I sing-song EVERYTHING to him because he really responds to it. I'm sure it's completely annoying for passers-by, but it works for us, so I'm not swayed by eye-rolling. :)

  2. i really enjoyed reading this - and it made me want to send my three to you to play.

    we sing everything around here, too. my mom always did with me, as well. and my mom was a teacher, but i wasn't. my military training didn't set me up for this mom-gig - well, the sleep deprivation part, maybe.

    and i love how much you guys get out and about!


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