It's important to meet preschoolers where they are, developmentally, instead of trying to prep them for life a dozen years down the road. If there are little ones in your life, accept how they learn best and give them the chance to learn at their own speeds.
The National Association for the Education of Young Children supports an approach to teaching that is grounded in research on how young children develop and learn, both individually and as part of a group. The NAEYC promotes young children's optimal learning and development, and for the past several years, the group's "Message in a Backpack" program has provided ideas for teachers to send home to parents. Here are a few ideas adapted from the program.
. Use everyday activities to build your child's fine-motor skills - those tasks that require control of small muscles in the hands. They can be strengthened when your child sets the table, helps prepare meals, squeezes out a sponge, plays with clay or scribbles with markers. Go with your child's interests and keep his hands working.
. Try not to get frustrated by the constant repetitions of "why?" and recognize that your child just wants to communicate with you. Repeat and extend what your child says to you. If he says, "I like lizards," try responding with, "I know. What do you like about lizards?" Or instead of just saying "Good job" when your child presents his latest drawing, show that you appreciate his efforts: "You've added lots of lines and circles." Use interesting words to build your child's vocabulary, such as describing ice cream as "swirly" or fall leaves as "crunchy." Get off your phone and speak clearly; your child is counting on you to help her learn how to communicate.
. Spend time outside with your family throughout the year, and try to enjoy all kinds of weather. What's fun inside might be even more fun outdoors. Children need outdoor experiences, slow walks and trips to the playground. Point out nature all around you. Enjoy the leaves changing colors and falling down; go apple-picking or head to a pumpkin patch; bring binoculars or a magnifying glass; and tote along a bag for collecting treasures such as rocks and acorns.
. It's not the ABCs that your child's kindergarten teacher will be most impressed by; it's impulse control - the ability to wait for a turn without panicking, for example, and not push in line. Practice self-control skills with your kids by following step-by-step recipes, by working puzzles together or by planting some low-maintenance flower seeds. Tell your child how long he has to wait for something, such as, "As soon as I put your sister to bed, we will read a story." Finish what you're doing, within reason, then respond to your child's requests for attention.
. Read! Build a library at home with books from thrift stores, yard sales, relatives and friends. Borrow additional books from the library. Snuggling up and reading to your child each day is essential. Children are more likely to read for fun when books are readily available. Refer to letters and words in books, and show how you are reading from left to right and top to bottom on the page.
When looking at education options for your child, keep in mind that schools accredited by the NAEYC have teachers who are trained to:
. Meet young children at their current stage of development, and help each child meet learning goals.
. Know what is typical at each age and stage of early development.
. Know what is individually appropriate.
. Know what is culturally important to children's families.
Betsy Flagler is a journalist, mother and preschool teacher based in Davidson, N.C. If you have tips or questions, please email her at firstname.lastname@example.org or call Parent to Parent at 704-236-9510.