>Dear Dr. Hackney,
Our four year-old is scheduled to start Kindergarten in the fall of 2008. We want her to be ready. Should we encourage her to “learn through play” or introduce academics?
Rina, Mother of one
You can and should be doing both. The idea of “learning through play” is the most appropriate approach to teaching young children prior to school entry. This approach is likely to capture their interest and keep them involved in the learning process. Unfortunately though, many parents assume this means just letting their children go play and, as a result, their children will learn what they need for later school success. By all means, learning through play should be more structured and incorporate academic ideas.
In the years before Kindergarten, learning through play might include activities to teach the alphabet shapes and sounds. The focus is just on keeping the process fun. You can name a ‘Letter of the Week.’ It’s often best to start with the first letter of your child’s name, and then, plan lots of fun activities around that letter. For example, if your child’s name begins with the letter “A” you could have an A-hunt in the grocery store, finding all the upper and/or lower case letters you can. You could make a jar collection of all the small things you can find that start with that letter. You could plan an A-meal day, offering at least one food that starts with A at each meal. You can trace, cut and paint the letter. Then pick another letter the next week.
I would not expect many four year-olds to want to sit and listen to how to write a letter and then repeatedly practice in the same way. Likely, they would be bored or easily frustrated by this approach, and you are sure to lose them before you are half-way through the alphabet. This is the same with the rote use of flashcards or over-reliance on workbook pages.
Teaching numbers and early math concepts can be equally successful using the more playful approach. You can count fun things; then, write the number next to the fun things you just counted. You can introduce money and count change together. You can teach one to one correspondence through setting the table or matching pairs of socks. It is helpful to remember that math is far more than numbers at this young age. Preschool math concepts also include measuring time, space and weight, sorting, categorizing, grouping, seeing and creating patterns, recognizing shapes and matching.
And relax! Most children are more than ready for Kindergarten. Our public schools open their doors to children with a very wide range of life experience and academic learning. On the first day of school, there will be a few Kindergarteners who are just learning their letters and a few others who can already read independently, but most of the children will fall somewhere in between. Of course, the more ready they are the better, but keep it fun. The learning through play approach helps insure that children will be interested in the learning process far past their year in Kindergarten.
Rene Hackney, PhD.
Parneting Playgroups, Inc.