Early childhood development and learning is a journey, not a race, and should not be full of high pressure and stress. While preschool follows a formal curriculum, it should be a rich, multisensory experience that matches a child’s developmental age and stage. The preschool years should be as play-based as possible, allowing children to experience all aspects of themselves in 3D, in a fun way.
Research shows a child’s cognitive development is inextricably linked to her social and emotional development, starting with the bond she shares with her parents. While play groups and preschools provide a structured curriculum, it’s parents and primary caregivers who provide the hidden curriculum by singing songs in the car, cooking together, showing her how to dress and feed herself, as well as how to tidy up and have good manners.
Here are some basic building blocks to maximise early learning at home and school:
Keep it real and multisensory
In our digital world, this is something you need to keep reminding yourself. While it’s easy and expedient to hand over a tablet or cellphone to your little one to keep her occupied and out of your hair, it doesn’t give her a real, 3D or multisensory experience of the world. Encourage these activities:
- Sand and water play
- Play dough and paint
- Games with shapes (did you know a triangle, rectangle, circle, square and diamond contain all the lines you will find in letters of the alphabet?)
- Puzzles for spatial planning, manipulation and directionality (they have to physically turn the pieces until they fit – something she doesn’t experience in the same way when she builds puzzles on a tablet)
- Lots of big body movements on jungle gyms, kicking and hitting balls and riding scooters and bikes.
The invisible senses
We all know about the five senses – hearing, seeing, touching, tasting and smelling – but few parents are aware of the invisible senses. The vestibular sense is based in the inner ear and gives feedback to the brain about balance and where your child is in space. So, it lets her know when she’s upside down and helps her regain her balance once she is turned the right way up again.
Proprioceptive sense is how the brain receives feedback through the muscles and joints. Children need to develop this sense so they know how hard to kick or hit a ball, or how hard to press when writing with a pen. To develop these senses, encourage:
- Rolling on the floor or down a grassy slope
- Doing somersaults through your arms
- Playing on swings and slides
- Pushing, pulling, rolling, squeezing and shaping play dough
- Construction toys that require clicking or pressing together
- Climbing jungle gyms
- Riding a bicycle.
You can now see how all early learning is based on movement. In fact, the body is the architect of the brain. Every movement your child makes is a sensory experience that physically grows the size of her brain and wires it for academic learning later on. Some parents seem to think children who move a lot must have Attention Deficit Disorder (ADD), but all children are born to move. Encourage large movements known as gross motor, as well as small movements, known as fine motor. Both are needed for your child to learn how to coordinate the different parts of her body with her eyes, and to get both sides of her body working together. To encourage your child to move, encourage:
- Outdoor play – children love having space around them
- Riding bikes and swimming, which are both excellent for bilateral integration (both sides of the body moving together)
- Skipping around the house or garden
- Hopping from one tile to another down the bedroom passage
- Somersaulting on your bed after bath time.
It may seem boring when your little one wants to do the same thing over and over again, or hear the same songs, or watch the same movie, but for her this is how she consolidates her learning. Repetition helps your child build strong neurological pathways in the brain. Did you know, for a memory cell to be formed in the brain (called an engram), the same movement must be performed at least 200 to 300 times? In occupational therapy, a child is there for the brain to be repatterned or rewired through the brain-body connection − movement. In a session, she will do between 2 000 and 3 000 repetitions in a variety of ways.
Together and apart
The preschool years are actually all about your child pulling things apart and putting them back together again. This is how she learns about the world around her. Just look at an eight- to 12-month-old and how she’ll pull all the tissues out of the box, the Tupperware out of the cupboard, or knock down the tower you have built. Then, from about two -and-a-half years of age, she’ll start understanding she can put things together − whether she’s stacking something, matching shapes or building puzzles. She’s now more constructive and discovering how to control her world while learning about part/whole relationships (in the same way that parts go together to make a whole, puzzle pieces make a puzzle, and Lego pieces make a castle, so too do lines make up letters, letters make up words, words make up sentences, and sentences make up stories).
Shape, colour and quantity
Learning how to sort shapes, colours and numbers through educational games provides essential pre-reading, pre-writing and pre-maths skills. Children who learn through play are acquiring multisensory foundations for later academic learning. Concrete learning experiences will make your child’s learning journey easier in the long run. Understand that your child learns in three phases:
- Concrete learning – she can see, touch, feel, taste and smell a real apple. It is round, and has a colour and texture. When you bite into it, there is a crunching sound and the inside is completely different to the outside. It’s juicy and has a taste and a smell.
- Semi-concrete learning – a picture of an apple.
- Abstract learning – the word “apple”, the letter “a” or the number one.
The parent and the preschool
Beyond marinating your child in love, providing a safe and secure environment for her and talking her clever, your role, as a parent, is to expose your children to a variety of experiences that are age-appropriate and stimulating, and to ensure she is well socialised with other children. You can’t do this all by yourself (unless you’re very dedicated and available), which is where the preschool and well-trained teachers and early childhood development practitioners come in.
Some of the benefits of sending children to preschool include:
- Sharing and taking turns
- Following instructions
- Listening (to instructions and stories)
- Following a routine
- Being independent from parents.
All these elements come together to enhance necessary perceptual and life skills for school readiness, but never underestimate your role in supporting your child’s learning journey.
The formal education curriculum and the hidden curriculum, provided by you, are essential for a well-rounded child who is equipped to face the world. It all starts in the heart of your home and in the sandpit at preschool.
Our experienced editors work with trained journalists and qualified experts to compile accurate, insightful and helpful information about pregnancy, birth, early childhood development and parenting. Our content is reviewed regularly by our panel of advisors, which include medical doctors and healthcare professionals.