Why Tutoring Your Toddler is Smart Parenting
Ian Ruzich of North Reading, Massachusetts, just celebrated his second birthday. Like many toddlers, he is an active, adventurous boy who is learning a lot. But his mother, Mari, wonders just how much she should be teaching him. “I wrestle with figuring out what he’s ready to learn and what he’s too young for,” says the first-time mom.
Children in the toddler stage, generally considered ages 12 months to three years, are hands-on learners. Early childhood education expert Dr. Victoria Speaks-Folds, PhD, vice president of Education for Tutor Time Learning Systems, Inc., explains, “Toddlers learn through manipulating their immediate environment. They use their hands to try out cause and effect and their eyes and ears to absorb everything they see and hear around them.”
Adults should encourage toddlers to safely explore their environments. Susan Dunkley, president and founder of New Horizon Child Care, recommends providing materials that encourage toddlers to use all their senses. “Give them objects that make noise and have texture and foods to taste and smell,” she suggests.
Outdoors is a great place for toddlers to learn. “We often explore the yard or the playground and then talk about what we see,” comments Mari Ruzich.” And Ian is enrolled in a Kindermusik class where the children interact with musical instruments, puppets, and each other.”
“Music is such a universal treasure,” says Janetha Edwards, a mother of two in Gilbert, Arizona. “I think music attributes to so many lessons, including increasing vocabulary acquisition through rhythm, repetition, and exposure.”
Dr. Speaks-Folds agrees that music is great for little ones and suggests that parents and toddlers sing and dance together. “Toddlers learn through imitation. They copy what we do.”
“Toddlers learn when they are entertained and engaged,” Dunkley counsels. Sing along with CDs and DVDS or make a recording of your own. See how your toddler reacts to hearing his voice played back.
Those mundane daily chores parents endure are stimulating learning opportunities for toddlers. A trip to the supermarket offers a rich educational experience including exciting sights, sounds, and touch. Let toddlers finger the items you are buying, especially those with unusual textures and smells. Show them the colorful boxes, cans, and bottles as you place them in your cart.
Parents are cautioned not to overload their young children with too many learning activities though. “Don’t try to cram all your errands into one day,” says Dr. Speaks-Folds. “Toddlers tend to stress out when adults don’t pay attention to their schedule needs. Block out the day into active, quiet, active, quiet.”
The Importance of Books
During those quiet times, be sure to read. There is no question that books play an integral part in tutoring toddlers. “Reading books to toddlers promotes language development,” says Dunkley. “[And] it is further enhanced through talking about the story or pictures.”
“We read a lot,” says Ruzich. “And I ask Ian questions about each page or picture. He points things out and names similar items from real life.”
Maximize the moment by acting out the tale using finger puppets or cardboard cutouts. Toddlers love dramatic play and dress up. Choose parts and engage the whole family in a theatrical version of the story. “When they were toddlers my children and I acted out stories like The Three Billy Goats Gruff,” Edwards remembers. “It helped them with recall and perception.”
Realistic picture books also introduce young children to a wider world. Non-fiction selections can spark an interest in nature, science, and culture.
Preparing for Preschool
How will tutored toddlers be prepared for school? “A child who is a happy learner—who feels confident and valued—has the necessary skills for a successful school experience,” says Dr. Speaks-Folds. Some parents may want to add an extra dose of enrichment through the use of computer software, flash cards, and videos/DVDs, but many experts agree that this type of input does not further toddler learning.
Dr. Betsy Squibb, PhD, a professor of early childhood education at the University of Maine at Farmington and author of Learning Activities for Infants and Toddlers, says, “Sometimes parents get overenthusiastic and want to accelerate the learning. But toddlers learn through play, through experimenting with objects, through repetition, and through imitating others.”
“A toddler’s memory skills are only short term,” adds Dr. Speaks-Folds. “To have a toddler memorize abstract ideas through the use of flash cards and videos is not a lasting educational milestone. The toddler needs to be able to apply information to the surrounding environment.”
Some of the toys identified as educational may not be so to a toddler. Toys that do all the work will not stimulate eye-hand coordination and cause-and-effect most toddlers are learning naturally. “Educational toys should allow for the toddler to be active—to do something and not just be entertained in a passive manner,” advises Dr. Squibb. Toys should be age appropriate, safe, and durable. Unbreakable mirrors, squeeze toys, texture balls, fill and dump toys, rhythm instruments, play dough, and simple puzzles all promote development.
“Parents should consider a range of toys to stimulate different aspects of the toddler’s development. Toys should stimulate the child’s imagination,” says Dr. Squibb.
The effective parent/teacher is a good observer. As Dr. Squibb relates, watching helps a parent figure out what to do next. A toddler will give clues as to what fascinates him or her.
Karen Llewellyn of San Jose, California, follows daughter Jamie’s lead in pursuing activities. “We usually do things Jamie is particularly interested in. Lately it is hopping. I’ve played more hopscotch recently than in all my grade-school years!”
Edwards’ daughter, Cierra, now age seven, has had a lifelong passion for the ocean. Edwards is convinced that the decor in Cierra’s room, which is decorated like an aquarium, sparked the interest. How a room is decorated may play a part in inspiring curiosity. Jackie Silberg, author of 125 Brain Games for Toddlers and Twos, says any environment can stimulate a child’s interest. “It’s a good chance for a parent to discuss the wallpaper and objects in the room.” This is another way to develop language and the future ability to read.
Parents are not only interested in their toddlers’ cognitive development; many view education as more than just academic achievement. Llewellyn hopes to teach Jamie strength of character: “I think in the long run this is the most important element of a successful life.”
For Ruzich, social interaction is a concern. “Ian doesn’t know that children can be mean or hit or bite. I am most concerned about his exposure to this when he gets older.”
To educate a toddler is to share a love of something special,” concludes Dr. Speaks-Folds. “Provide a calm, assuring presence and you will guide your child through many meaningful experiences.”
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