Monday, September 30, 2013

Pre-preschool education

It comes as no surprise to my friends that educating my daughter is one of the most, if not the most, exciting aspects of parenting for me. Call it my inner nerd, my passion for learning, or my competitive side -- whatever it is, I'm having a lot of fun watching a little mind expand before my eyes every day.

As a person who generally dislikes the acquisition of too much stuff, I always look for simple learning opportunities that come up in our daily lives. I believe the concept behind learning is much like the concept behind exercising: Just as to exercise you really only need a pair of shoes, to learn you really only need to give your child attention. Baby Einstein and Sesame Street and Melissa & Doug products are all wonderful, but they're just icing if you pay attention to your child's interests and rituals.

Here are a few ways I've watched Natalie pick up some good pre-preschool knowledge in the past couple months:

Counting through "scoops"
Many mornings I make coffee. A few weeks ago as she was turning 20 months old, Natalie started paying extra attention to this ritual and would wake up each morning asking when we would "make coffee." Soon I realized that as I was scooping out the coffee beans from the canister to the machine I was counting out loud, and Natalie was paying attention to that, too. Then I realized I should let her do the scooping and counting with me. She loves this. Seriously, it's like one of her favorite activities of the day, proving once again the concept behind the cliche idea that kids prefer the cardboard box to the gift inside.

With daily practice for a few weeks, Natalie can almost count to 10. She prefers to ignore the existence of 5 and 7, but is very proud to shout "10!" when she makes it there. I started giving her two bowls of dry pasta and a scoop so that she can practice scooping and counting from her high chair while I empty the dishwasher or do some other lame chore. It is painfully adorable to listen to her counting out loud to herself.

Colors and shapes through chalk and crayons
Drawing is another one of Natalie's favorite activities. Right around her first birthday I picked up some Crayola Jumbo Crayons (which I have not seen in any store that sells Crayola products except for Michael's crafts -- these suckers are hard to come by unless you order online). For several months Natalie was not interested. But when spring weather rolled around and we started using Crayola Sidewalk Chalk, which is no doubt even easier for little hands to grasp, her interest in drawing with crayons took off, too.

Thanks to crayons and chalk, Natalie learned all her basic colors rather quickly. Now she's working on some slightly more obscure colors, such as silver and gray. She's also aware of some basic shapes, though her favorite shape of all is by far hearts (because every day she insists Matt and I "draw hearts!" for her). She will ask for me to draw a blue heart, and then I'll ask for her to hand me the green crayon so I can draw a green heart. This game could go on for hours.

Two quick sidenotes about crayons:
1) Crayon fail: the Left-Right Ergonomic Crayons, box of 10 -- While in Denver with my girl friends, I spotted these at an art museum and thought they'd be a fun souvenir for Natalie. If I had played with them before purchasing, though, I would have left them on the shelf. These crayons are labeled as environmentally friendly, but they also shouldn't be labeled as crayons because they require the artist to exert tremendous pressure in order for a faint line to appear on the page. These are neither child nor adult friendly.

2) Crayon win: the Large Mini Storage Box with a Handle from the Container Store is the perfect size for fitting a pack of Crayola Jumbo Crayons. (How's "large mini" for an oxymoron?) Natalie loves opening and shutting lids and taking items in and out of boxes, so I knew we couldn't rely on the cardboard crayon box to do the trick.

ABCs through teeth brushing
Natalie and I brush our teeth together in the morning (while her dad always handles the night time routines). I've heard somewhere that kids should brush their teeth at least as long as the ABCs song lasts. Given Natalie's poor brushing skills, though, I prefer to make her plow through about 3-4 rounds of the song before we decide her teeth are clean-ish. Of course, this means I am usually singing through a mouth-full of toothpaste, but it's a routine and Natalie will say "ABC" at this point, though nothing else. I'm wondering when she'll start singing more of the song. I know it will happen as some point with daily exposure.

Letter recognition through placemat
This is the outlier of this post, which is supposed to be about not spending much money, but this is a utilitarian item that also serves an educational function, so I'll add it.

A huge splurge in our lives is the Stokke Table Top, a fancy-schmancy placemat. Somehow when I bought it online I managed to find it for around $60 instead of $90 (yes, a $90 placemat), but even on sale that's a lot of money. Still, it holds up incredibly well and the suction cups are simply amazing at keeping the placemat in place. The Table Top comes with two reversible placemats, but so far we've kept the placemat with the alphabet on top. Growing up with Eat and Learn placemats, I am a firm believer in a power of learning through essentially osmosis while eating. Natalie is starting to recognize several letters consistently, and I think this placemat, along with some books that I'll blog about later, are helping with this.

I'm excited for all the future learning I'll be witnessing in Natalie each day!