Since the 1990s, we’ve known that the critical period in brain development is birth to 3, when millions of neural connections are created in a baby’s brain. Long before your children enter school, you are their first, best teacher.
Early learning requires human interaction. This is good news. You can provide a child’s developing brain with everything it requires to grow and learn; ready to read and ready to succeed in school. The American Library Association suggests these five research-based practices: Talking, singing, reading, writing, playing.
These practices don’t have to cost a thing. They’re easy and they’re fun.
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Talking with your children helps them learn language.
The “word gap” was revealed in a 1990s research study. By the age of 3, low-income children in the study had heard approximately 30 million fewer words than middle-class children.
Worse, the words were mostly directive or negative: “Do this.” “Stop that.” This had a devastating effect on their school achievement. Middle-class parents actually talked with their kids, giving them an enormous learning advantage.
While waiting in line at the store or driving in the car, while eating dinner or just before bed, any parent of any income can give their child the gift of words.
• Make media-free time for your child;
• Ask open-ended questions: “Tell me about…”
• Give your child time to think;
• Repeat the answer in different words;
• Use your first language most often, if you speak more than one;
• Talk about books.
Singing and rhyming help your child hear different sounds in words.
When children sing, they develop listening skills, learn the rhythms and rhymes of language, and learn that even long words are made up of smaller parts.
Babies love lullabies. Songs in the car help the miles go by. Songs make chores more fun. Sing while cleaning up, while changing a diaper… The day feels happier. Learning happens.
• Clap along to help your child hear syllables;
• Sing songs more than once;
• Play at rhyming, even make up silly rhymes;
• Learn from YouTube, for example Jbrary videos;
• In the library, find children’s music CDs;
• Look for picture book children’s songs and nursery rhymes.
Reading together leads to loving books!
Raising a reader requires books in the home. Your child’s library card lets you borrow children’s books completely free — no fines.
Read great authors like Margaret Wise Brown, Eric Carle, Mo Willems, Bill Martin Junior and many others. Look for wonderful books like “Cat Secrets” by Jef Czekaj, “Count the Monkeys” by Mac Barnett, “Dinosaur Zoom!” by Penny Dale, “There are Cats in this Book” by Viviane Schwarz, “Digger Dog” by William Bee and thousands more.
• Read everything together, wherever there are printed words;
• Share stories that you love;
• Begin with board books — no worries about tearing pages;
• Talk about illustrations;
• Let your child predict what will happen next.
Writing begins with scribbles and helps your child understand that print has meaning.
• Scribbling is the way children learn to write;
• Ask your child to title the scribbles and write it down;
• Together trace the letters of your child’s name.
Playing is the work of children. It is one of the very best ways to learn language and literacy skills. It encourages your child to use imagination and explore new concepts. Start with peekaboo, making silly faces and baby bounces. For ideas look at “Rhyme and Bounce With Your Baby” videos.
Later on, playing helps children practice putting thoughts into words, act out real situations, and use imagination to solve problems. Props can be anything that sparks imagination — a stick, a box, or pots and pans.
At Whatcom County and Bellingham libraries the five practices are part of free programs for the very young. And check out the new Early Literacy kits.
If you’ve been reading this article and thinking, “I do this already, this isn’t new,” you’re right.
It took years of scientific research to realize that the everyday practices of effective parents are exactly the right things to do.