Angela Oswalt, MSW, Natalie Staats Reiss, Ph.D and Mark Dombeck, Ph.D.
Early childhood years are a perfect time for adults to nurture children's musical and creative interests. Young children love to create musical rhythms as well as to listen to music on the radio, TV or MP3 player. They also love to sing and to watch child-friendly live performances. There are many toy instruments designed to accommodate children's small bodies that allow them to make musical sound with minimal coordination. However, parents can also make instruments. Any pot or pan can be a drum. Boxes or other closed vessels (e.g., oatmeal containers filled with dry rice) are perfect shakers. Strings stretched over a hole in the lid of a shoe box make a great primitive guitar.
Young children can make whatever sound combinations they'd like on their instruments, but parents can also guide and encourage the repetition of simple rhythms and sounds. Parents can also teach children simple songs that can be sung to background recordings, live instruments, or alone. If adult family members regularly play musical instruments such as the guitar or piano, adults can encourage children to sing along or to try playing the instrument themselves (with guidance, particularly if the instruments are delicate!). Whether parents are musical whizzes or they just sing off-key in the shower, children will love singing right along beside them.
One area of cognitive nurturing that seems obvious to many parents concerns ways that parents can promote children's skills with reading and working with numbers. As discussed before in our preschool parenting article, it is extremely important that adults read to children (of any age) every day in order to nurture children's growing love and enjoyment of reading. Reading may occur at any time (e.g., before bed, on the way to a friend's house, waiting in line at the store), or at a specific time of day, depending on what routines work best for the family and what opportunities arise to work on reading skills.
Nurturing a child's love of reading does not need to involve books exclusively. There are lots of other activities and games that can encourage word and number literacy. Parents of toddlers can encourage storytelling, for instance. Parents can show children pictures in books or magazines and ask them to create relevant stories featuring these characters. This sort of creative exercise can be hard for toddlers to do without assistance, so parents can help them along by filling in details as cued by children's basic story ideas. Large felt boards with "stick on" cut-out people, animals, buildings, and background scenery can become a perfect interactive tool to help children visualize and practice story-telling. Commercial felt boards can be expensive, but crafty families can make their own with a piece of plywood, lots of felt material, and a little cutting skill. Parents of older children can encourage story collage creation. After reading or hearing a story, children can cut out and assemble pictures from old magazines that remind them of related story details, characters, or settings.
In kindergarten and first grade, young children can work on pronunciation exercises, sounding out and blending word sounds through different fun games. Parents can make a "Go Fish" game out of cards with letters and common letter combinations (e.g., "at", "ch", "st", "op", etc). As they play, children will be practicing well-formed pronunciation, as well as experimenting with combining new letter sounds to make words. Parents can also make a game out of identifying punctuation marks or capitalized letters. For instance, parents can challenge children to see who can find and circle ten capitalized names the fastest in the newspaper. Most second-graders are writing simple sentences and combining them in paragraphs, as well as reading simple to moderate passages of text on their own with ease. Encourage these children to use their new skills by having them write recipes, poems, stories, or diary/journal entries about daily activities and fun family trips.
Children of all ages can work with parents to create their own books. By working together to draw pictures, creating the story line and content, and combining the final product, families can "publish" books. Smaller children may make books that simply have pictures with labels underneath them, while older children may create, write, and edit actual stories with characters.
One way that toddlers can improve their number skills is through counting exercises. Often, toddlers know how to say or sing the names for numbers in order, but they don't really know how these numbers can be used to measure objects. Parents can lay out a group of toys, pieces of clothing, cans of vegetables, or other objects and help children to count them. These sorts of counting games concretely illustrate how numbers and quantities of objects correspond. To further reinforce this learning, parents can make flash cards with numerals written on them and then ask toddlers to pick out the card that matches the number of a certain type of object in front of them. To begin teaching the most basic form of geometry, parents can make a game of pointing out simple shapes that exist in the real world. Looking for the rectangle in the television screen, the circle in the pumpkin sitting on the porch in October, and the triangle in the three-sided "yield" street sign can all be fun shape-building activities.
With older preschoolers, parents can encourage math skills in different ways. Parents can show children a map and encourage them to count the number of states or counties they see. As well, parents can ask preschoolers to sort and count the coins in their piggy bank or in the family "loose change" jar. Another fun activity is filling jars, boxes, or bottles with objects like coins, beans, cookies or buttons, and having children guess how many objects are in the containers. This guessing game helps build children's perception of space and number.
Young school-aged children can work on counting in multiples (e.g., counting by 10's or 100's), as well as adding and subtracting. Give children 100 beans, chocolate candies, pennies, or other small objects, and 10 cups. Have the children arrange the objects into groups of 10, and then put each of those groups into the cups. Ask them to finish by counting cups. This game, which helps children learn to visualize number problems, can be extended for use with groups of 20, 25, or any other multiple number. The game can be made more complicated by supplying an odd number of objects so as to illustrate the concept of a remainder. Children can graduate from this counting game to more complex games, such as a money-handling "store" game where they must set prices for items sold in an imaginary store, "buy" those items and then give themselves accurate change.