The Herald Bulletin

January 26, 2013

Play equals learning

Making the most out of your toddlers’ playtime

By Abbey Doyle
The Herald Bulletin

ANDERSON, Ind. — Courtney Fair and 3-year-old son Isaac Fair sat cross-legged on her living room floor with colorful beads and pipe cleaners spread in front of them.

“Which one goes next?” Courtney asked.

As Isaac studied the pipe cleaner before him, a pattern formed.

“White,” he declared.

Isaac only sees fun in his bracelet-making adventures, but Courtney sees there is a lot more involved in the activity — practicing colors, hand-eye coordination and even critical thinking by determining the pattern.

This is one of countless learning activities — disguised as fun — that she does with Isaac.

“Playing and learning don’t always have to be separate things,” Courtney said. “For me, this is the easiest way to try to help him learn, especially with boys who you might have a hard time getting to sit nicely at the table. Instead of saying, ‘This is math and spelling,’ I’m making it fun and natural for him.”

Showing love

And these activities can cost little to nothing. She bought the beads and pipe cleaners each for a dollar. They can be reused.

Another great interactive activity Isaac enjoys is his rice box — a large plastic container with about 10 pounds of rice, kitchen utensils and several toys such as his dump trucks.

Courtney can hide items inside, switch out the toys and utensils. The activity occupies Isaac while she’s in the kitchen.

He practices fine motor skills, uses his imagination and reasoning skills with the homemade toy.

“One of the best ways to show love is to spend time with him,” Courtney said. “So doing these activities with him, he’s not just sitting in front of the television or the iPad. And they challenge him and keep him busy, especially in the cold months when we can’t go outside. He is working off his physical and mental energy.”

Courtney taught first and second grade at Pendleton Elementary until she had Isaac, who has been joined by 5-month-old Cana. She and husband Tim, of Anderson, enjoy the many learning opportunities they have with the two.

‘Every day a play day’

Working parents Bill and Gina Oldham, of Alexandria, said the idea of “intentional play” can seem overwhelming but in reality is simple.

“We make everything we do play and a learning opportunity,” Bill said, as he and son Holton, 2, stacked blocks to create a castle. He quizzed the toddlers on his colors as the blocks got higher and higher. “We make every day a play day.”

In the kitchen, Gina and 4-year-old Fisher were making waffles for dinner. She asked Fisher to help measure the ingredients. He counted to 10 as the mixer whirled all the items together.

“The things we need to get done — folding towels, getting ready for school — we find ways to get the kids involved and interact,” Gina said. “We turn those activities into learning opportunities.”

But taking a bath, playing with their cars or rolling out Play-Doh doesn’t feel like lessons to the boys, she said. But the activities are preparing them for school and life anyway, she said.

“I want my children to exceed and excel in life and do things to give back to the community,” Gina said.

“Lessons like teaching them to work together and take turns and to work smarter not harder will help do that. If Fisher puts his coat on wrong we don’t just fix it. Instead, we say, ‘There’s something wrong with your coat. How can you fix it?’”

Things as simple as talking to your children with higher vocabulary has helped, Gina said.

‘Critical for children to play’

Joanne Hadley, Born Learning of Madison County director, said learning and playing go hand in hand. Learning opportunities don’t have to come from strictly set up activities. Anytime parents get on the floor and play and interact with their children they are helping them learn.

The literacy-based organization encourages interactive and intentional play with children.

“Taking time to play encourages language development and many other skills,” Hadley said. “It is critical for children to play.”

Born Learning Coordinator Penny Henderson said the “toddler bucket list” can be something families tailor to their family. She said a great way to think of activities to add is to think back to memories of your own childhood — things you remember doing with your own parents that have stuck with you.

Wendy Lipps, also a Born Learning coordinator, said seeing lists like this one helps reaffirm that what parents are already doing is positive and it can also give them more ideas.

Hadley encouraged parents to create their own list and share it on Born Learning’s Facebook page to give others ideas.

‘Playing is their job’

CAPE Director Mary Le Ewald said it is important to remember that all play is learning.

“As a parent, you have to value that playing is their job,” she said. And making learning opportunities out of play time is something  any parent can do.

A familial bond, created by playing with your children, is critical in developing an ability to manage one’s self and be successful, Ewald said.

And play helps children realize their importance in their parents’ lives.

“It shows them you value them enough to give them attention, that you want to be with them,” Lipps said. “That is critical in developing self-esteem and confidence.”

Parents hear the term “school-readiness” so often that sometimes it can be overwhelming, Hadley said. Looking at these bucket lists can help them realize that these play activities can contribute to that readiness and are fun, not daunting.

Blissten Followell, Born Learning coordinator, said these activities don’t have to cost money and shouldn’t overwhelm parents. Create a list and tackle one a day or week doing things like making music from pots and pans, paint with water tinted with food coloring or bringing snow inside.

“Explore your world and see what all is out there,” Followell said. “And while you are doing it, talk about it. Teach them new words as you go.”

Find Abbey Doyle on Facebook and @heraldbulletin on Twitter, or call 640-4805.