Turn off the TV: Get a hand on learning
Let’s forget for a moment the violence and sex
in TV programs. Here’s another reason for turning off
the tube: hands-on learning.
Preschool children need to be using their hands—building with blocks, scribbling
on paper, rolling a ball, for example. The physical activity strengthens the
fingers and enhances coordination, forming the foundation for writing, drawing,
typing at a computer keyboard, and many other skills.
But it’s more than that. The hand and arm form a deep learning pathway
to the brain, and the pathway gets laid down in early childhood. It begins in
infancy, as babies grasp, drop, and bang objects. It continues in the preschool
years as children work puzzles, pound pegs with wooden hammers, shape clay, and
match nuts and bolts.
By manipulating objects, children develop thinking skills. Children learn that
objects have shape, color, weight, and texture, for example. Gradually children
learn to classify objects by these traits. They begin to recognize patterns—red-blue,
red-blue, red-blue, for example. They learn how to match similar objects and
put them in sequence—smallest to largest, for example. Eventually, these
concepts lead to math skills—counting, adding, subtracting—and to
science skills—observing, predicting, testing.
So it’s important that children get plenty of hands-on learning opportunities
at home. And they don’t need store-bought educational materials. Ordinary
activities—setting the table, sorting socks, and folding laundry, for example—are
a good way to start.
You can also make learning games from household objects and recyclables. See
below for examples, and then make up your own.
Caution: Make sure all materials are safe. Don’t use glass or sharp pointed
objects. Small objects, like buttons and beads, pose a choking hazard for children
3 and younger.
Provide a set of four plastic measuring cups. You can also use
plastic storage containers with lids. Allow your child to explore
the cups with hands and mouth. Then ask the child to fit them
one inside the other. Talk about what is happening. Use words
like big and little, in and out.
Classify and sort
Provide an assortment of plastic forks, knives, and spoons. Name
the different items and allow your child to handle each one.
Then invite the child to pick out the forks. Try this with
tableware of different colors.
Gather other items that children can classify by size, shape, or color: plastic
lids, plant pots, cereal boxes, ball caps. Make a big pile of different items
and invite your child to put together things that are alike. Talk about the
results. Mix up the items and ask the child to find a different way that things
Start collecting things—rocks, shells, leaves, unshelled nuts, twigs,
fabric scraps, floor tiles. Invite your child to sort each type by color or
size or texture (smooth, rough). Have your child sort them from largest to
smallest or lightest to darkest.
Cut different colored drinking straws into four equal lengths.
Place the sections on a tray and arrange a few in a pattern—red-white-blue,
red-white-blue, for example. Ask your child to make the same
pattern with the remaining sections. Continue making patterns
and have your child copy them. Or have your child make a pattern
and you copy it.
Cut straws into 1-inch pieces. Cut yarn into 12-inch lengths, and wrap tape
around one end to make it stiff. Show your child how to string the straw on
the yarn to make a necklace. Encourage your child to make necklaces of different
Save envelopes from junk mail. After collecting several, have
your child deliver “mail” to each person in the
family. Say “One envelope to every person, one person
to every envelope.” Do the same with different items
such as muffins, combs, and keys.
Provide an ice cube tray and two each of an assortment of small items, such
as bolts, chip clips, clothespins, thread spools, milk jug caps, caps from
markers, large buttons, erasers. Ask your child to place one item in each hole
of the tray, with the same items side by side. Talk about the results.
Learning numbers 1-5
Gather five index cards and 15 milk jug caps. Write the numeral
1 on the first card and draw an outline around a milk jug cap.
Write the numeral 2 on the next card and draw two outlines.
Continue until you have a card for each number, one through
Show your child how to place a milk jug cap on an outline. Say the name of
each number as the child places caps on the outlines on each card. Once the
child can match caps to outlines, mix up the cards and let your child try again.
Then remove the cards, and ask your child to set out one cap, then two, and
so on. Encourage your child to count other items in the house—two lamps,
five apples, three pencils.
When your child understands five as a quantity, proceed to six and higher.
Cut four shapes—square, circle, triangle, and rectangle—roughly
2 inches across out of felt, denim, or another heavy fabric.
Cut out successively larger sizes of each shape. For example,
cut circles with diameters of 3, 4, and 5 inches.
Name each shape and let your child handle it. Mix up the shapes and see if
your child can pick out the shape you name. Ask your child to pick out all
the triangles. Have your child arrange each shape by size, from largest to
Suggest laying out the shapes in a design or picture. One of you makes the
design, and the other copies it. Challenge your child to guess or predict what
you’re going to make. Take turns.
Place four small objects, like buttons or pennies, in your hand
and close it into a fist. Open your hand and ask: “How
many are there?” Close your fist, remove one object,
open your fist, and again ask how many. Continue until you
have none. Explain that none is represented by the numeral
0, which is called “zero.”
Repeat this game with more and different objects. Think of examples of zero
in your home. “How many submarines do we have? Zero.” Look for
the numeral zero on food package labels: “How many grams of fat? Zero.”
Encourage family activity
As children get older, play board games like checkers and card
games like Go Fish. These games not only help the family have
fun together but also teach children how to pay attention,
follow rules, take turns, learn number concepts, and think