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Play in the early years helps prepare children's brains for academics later on

Did you know you can encourage your child to play in ways that will help their brain develop pathways for an easier understanding of the school curriculum when they get older?

Let’s start with math.

Block Play

In the early years, encouraging your child to play with blocks is an excellent tactic for teaching math concepts. Very young children will stack blocks, sort blocks into colours, and soon start to count them! Lego or Duplo-type blocks help children learn about fractions as they grow. How? When a child has a piece of Lego with eight dots on the top, they will quickly discover that to make an equal part with smaller blocks they need two blocks with four dots on top. They’ve learned that two halves make a whole. Even further, you can help them see how four blocks with two dots on top also make an equal part for their first block – or four quarters make a whole. While your toddler is not consciously processing fractions at this age, they are building pathways in their brain that will be receptive to similar knowledge as they grow older, meaning learning more advanced math concepts will be easier. Many academic studies have linked early childhood block play and later math achievement.


Play with your food!

Let's say you and your child take a break from playing to re-energize with a snack, and you choose trail mix. Some children will naturally start to sort the different items that come in mixed foods: they make little piles of pretzels, raisins, chocolate bits, sunflower seeds, and so on. Sorting like this is also an early math concept that you can take a step further by asking them to create a pattern: pretzel-raisin-sunflower seed-chocolate, and so on. The ability to recognize patterns is a key math skill… it helps us make predictions based on what we see.


Compare objects and colours

Comparing is a preliminary step that can be taken before getting into the concepts of ordering, positioning, and patterning with your child. Think about the objects in your home that are different colours or shapes, and have your child compare them to one another. An example of this would be to take out a yellow piece of paper and a red one, and ask your child to find a yellow object and a red one, then have them compare the objects to the pieces of paper.


Cupboard Play

The ability to distinguish sizes and recognize patterns is a math concept you can teach by using items around your house, specifically in your cupboards and drawers! Simple activities such as getting your child to organize the cups from smallest to biggest when putting dishes away or allowing your child to organize objects in your cupboards according to their size can help develop their understanding of patterns and sizes. You can further this concept by first making a place setting on the table for dinner as an example for your child and encouraging them to set the rest of the table with cutlery and dishes by following the same pattern. By incorporating these teaching moments into your daily routine, your child is not only learning life skills but gains a self-esteem boost from contributing.


Measuring

You've set the table, so now what about dinner? Children often get excited when they have the tools to create and play with their parents and caregivers, and measuring is an everyday task you can easily turn into a fun activity! Giving your child the opportunity to develop an intellectual skill (understanding measures) by letting them help you cook is a great way to bond with them. Recipes will often require measuring and understanding fractions, so if you are making cookies with your child and the recipe calls for half a cup of sugar, have them look at the fractions on the measuring cup and fill the right amount. If you have access to a measuring tape, another activity is to have children measure how long their feet and hands are, how tall they are, or how tall their toys are. While doing this activity, explain what the marks on a measuring tape mean and how they can help your child compare sizes.


Exploring scientific subjects such as biology, chemistry, and physics at an early age with your child is a an excellent way to give them the opportunity to gain a deeper understanding of how the world works and grasp concepts such as cause-and-effect. A child's natural curiosity gives you many opportunities to explore scientific topics with them; not only is it fun, but it also increases a child's capacity for reasoning and logical thought.

Biology

Biology is the study of living things and can easily be introduced to your child by looking at the things around you. Next time you are on a walk with your child, point out what you see in your environment and ask them questions to prompt them to think about what they see a little bit deeper. Is the grass you see green, or is it turning brown? Why is the grass turning brown? Did the grass not get enough water, or is it getting colder outside? If you have plants inside your house, have your child help you take care of them. Where can you put the plant to help it grow? What will happen if we don't water the plants? Has the plant grown since we last watered it? Another way you can support your child's early understanding of biology is to help them understand how their bodies work, their body's processes, and how everything is connected. We are all living things, so having your child understand their bodies is a great way to kickstart their early understanding of biology!


Chemistry

The best way to introduce chemistry to your child is to invite them to try different things and get involved in messy play! A great way to do this is again through cooking with your child. Let's say you are preparing broccoli for dinner; you can have your child feel and even bite the broccoli when it is raw so that they can see it is hard and not easy to chew. Then you can cook the broccoli however you choose (in a frying pan, boiled, in the oven etc.) and then what happens? The broccoli becomes soft and easy to chew, showing that by adding heat, you can make chemical changes to the food. Another simple activity to help your child visualize chemical reactions is to take a small amount of vinegar and add a teaspoon of baking soda. When these two ingredients are combined, you will see the mixture begin to bubble, causing a chemical reaction.


Physics

Physics can be difficult to understand as we get older and the concepts get more advanced, but it's quite easy for children at an early stage! A great place to start when introducing early concepts of physics is to study how things move. A toddler learning how to get from a sitting to a standing position on the ground or a child learning how to throw or kick a ball to make it go fast or slow involves physics. You can teach your child about applying different levels of force and how that affects an object's movement by using a toy car and putting a piece of tape on the floor to act as the finish line. Walk to the other end of the room and see how hard you must push the car to get it across the finish. Compare pushing the car softly and pushing the car as hard as you can. How does this affect the car's distance and speed? Another simple way to introduce physics to your child is by going outside on a windy day. What happens when the wind starts to blow? Does it cause things to move? Watch the leaves on the trees and see!


Where we come from, who we are, and recognizing the ways in which we are the same yet different is an important concept to teach your child in the early years. When children notice things and point them out, it helps them understand the world around them. Parents and caregivers play a significant role in supporting children's understanding that it is okay to be different and that we are all diverse from one another. Introducing this concept to a child in their early years will help them to become more open and support a lifelong practice of embracing the amazing diversity that surrounds us!

Social Studies

There are many opportunities to teach your child about social studies in their early years. It is natural for children to display curiosity and ask questions about who and what surrounds them, and as parents and caregivers, we must make sure we are answering children's questions honestly and openly. When you think about a child asking questions, it shows that they want to understand, so if a child points out that someone is different from them, it is a perfect opportunity for a parent or caregiver to explain we all have differences that make us who we are. In addition, it is important for children to understand their culture as well as others and why we practice the things we do. Using the objects in your home to teach your child about their culture is one way to help your child understand why and how your family celebrates different holidays at an early age. This will support them in understanding themselves while giving them the knowledge to allow them to continue those traditions as they get older and share them with others if they wish. We should feel proud of our differences, and instilling this concept at an early age will help your child understand and embrace the differences between themselves and their peers.


Ways to encourage intellectual development through language arts can be found in our previous language development blog posts:

Language Development
Sing with your child!
Language Activities

There are numerous teaching opportunities you, as a parent or caregiver, can give a child just by looking at the world that surrounds you. By introducing the concepts of math, science, social studies, and language arts to your child during the early stages of their development, you are providing your child with the knowledge and tools to help them succeed in school during their later years.