Early Childhood Education, Early Learning, Illinois Early Learning Project

Five Things Children Gain from Puzzle Play

Puzzles are a classic toy for young children. They come in a variety of types, materials, and levels of difficulty. Even infants may explore simple puzzles that involve fitting two pieces together. Puzzles are available with increasing complexity to challenge children as they grow. There are many life tasks that we do daily that are similar to puzzles. For example, fitting items into a box or bag is similar to fitting puzzle pieces into a puzzle form.

Puzzle play is a great time to build cognitive and fine motor skills, but it can also be a time to build social, emotional, and language skills when caregivers use time with puzzles thoughtfully. Here are five things children learn through puzzle play:

  • Spatial vocabulary: Use words such as turn, flip, and rotate when you are coaching children to fit puzzle pieces together. Children also learn words such as above, below, and beside when they describe the position of puzzle pieces in relation to each other.
  • Sequencing: There are some puzzles in which the sequence the pieces are put together is important. Children hear and learn ordinal numbers and words that indicate relative position in a sequence, such as first, second, third, and last. Children can also be encouraged to retell the sequence in which they put the pieces together to further develop their understanding of sequencing.
  • Problem-solving: Children learn to work through a problem and reach a solution as they fit the pieces together. They may need to learn to set aside the piece they hope to put in the puzzle while searching for one that fits in the spot they need. They also may learn there are multiple paths to the puzzle’s completion as they do a puzzle over and over. When they work on puzzles with peers, they also describe their strategies to one another and work through difficulties collaboratively.
  • Task completion and persistence: The process of putting together a puzzle has a finite end when the puzzle is solved. Children encounter frustration when they cannot easily solve a puzzle, and when they work through these emotions, they enjoy the success of task completion. Working through these feelings helps children develop persistence, or the ability to keep going in the face of difficulty.
  • Fine motor and hand-eye coordination: Children refine their fine motor and hand-eye coordination skills as they manipulate puzzle pieces to put the puzzle together. They develop the small muscles in their hand that allow them to grasp and move puzzle pieces with precision.

Older infants and young toddlers may enjoy knobbed puzzles that are easy to grasp. First, children may find success with puzzles that have one piece for each image. For example, a puzzle of animals might have cat, dog, and bird pieces that each fit in their own spot. Then, as toddlers and preschoolers become more skillful, they may try “tray puzzles” with multiple pieces fitting together to make a single picture. As toddlers and preschoolers grow, they may start to enjoy trying jigsaw puzzles and more complex tray puzzles. Three-dimensional puzzles, such as stacking rings or a nesting cup, also challenge their skills and thinking.

Young children need access to puzzles that are the correct level of difficulty for their current developmental stage to benefit from puzzle play. They should have access to puzzles that they can do independently. This allows children the chance to build their small muscles, hand-eye coordination, and problem-solving strategies through repeated practice. They enjoy the feeling of accomplishing a task on their own as they put the puzzles together and take them apart. It is helpful to keep these puzzles in a place where children can access and clean them up independently. Rotating the selection of puzzles will help maintain their interest.

Children should also have access to puzzles that are a little bit challenging. Working on puzzles that are a little too hard to complete independently is a great time for young children to work with peers and caregivers to build new strategies for solving puzzles. Puzzles that are much too difficult may be a source of frustration for children and their caregivers. Young children may dump the pieces and mix multiple puzzles together because they have a difficult time engaging with puzzles that are too hard. Caregivers and teachers may wish to keep the majority of these more challenging puzzles in a location where children can access them with assistance and a smaller, rotating selection available so children are encouraged to build their skills with assistance.

Written for the Illinois Early Learning Project: https://illinoisearlylearning.org/blogs/growing/puzzle-play/

 

Early Childhood Education, Early Learning, Illinois Early Learning Project

Busy with Blocks

Children learn many things by playing with blocks. Spatial and mathematical thinking are important understandings that children build through block play. As children build, they gain hands-on experience with concepts of proportions and balance. They explore shapes. As they talk about the blocks they are handling, they learn about the two-dimensional shapes on the surfaces of blocks and the three-dimensional forms that blocks represent, such as cylinders, prisms, and cubes. As they build, they learn to organize things by relative size, color, weight, and form.

Natural and human-built structures fill the world. Young children notice the shapes and designs of these built structures all around them. Perhaps you have been on a walk or car ride and heard a preschooler commenting on very tall built structures such as a skyscraper, a spikey fence, or a twisty slide on a playground. Children notice bird nests, hills, lakes, rivers, and other natural structures. Then, you may have seen that child attempting to re-create that structure with wooden blocks, plastic bricks, or even rocks on the playground. Blocks are a valuable tool that allow children to represent their world and share their understandings with peers and caregivers.

Block play also is an opportunity for children to develop skills across developmental domains, prompting them to use their language, social, and emotional skills. During block play, children have opportunities to communicate and collaborate with peers. Children can share ideas and work together to build large structures. Children negotiate sharing resources. They may work out exchanges of various shapes or problem solve how to build their structure when a certain shape is in short supply. A child may need to manage her emotions and frustration when another child knocks down her structure.

Do you want to keep your young learners busy with blocks? Here are some ideas to help make block play a richer and more inclusive opportunity for diverse learners.

  • Organize your space: Provide a variety of types of building blocks and add picture and word labels to help children find and put away blocks in an organized manner. This will help them find the shapes of blocks they need for their structures as well as learn the vocabulary to talk about structures such as arch, pillar, unit, and double unit.
  • Add loose parts: Adding other items to blocks inspires children to play with blocks in new ways. Scarves can become canopies, tissue boxes can become beds, twigs might encourage children to create a small forest. Small pieces of paper and tape can be used to create signs and symbols to enhance block creations. (Be sure to choose objects appropriate for the age of the children in your setting to avoid choking hazards.)
  • Encourage dramatic play: Adding toy animals, people, or vehicles to your block play can encourage children to create stories. Clothespins and cardboard can be used to make simple stand-up people. You might also tape the photos of the children in your classroom or people in your family to blocks so they can become characters your block play.
  • Allow structures to remain standing: If your space allows, let children keep their structures standing instead of putting them away immediately. You might encourage children to write a sign with the word “save” by their structure so they can continue to work on it later.
  • Incorporate technology: Help children use a video camera, digital camera, or other recording device to document their creations. You can interview the children and ask them to describe their structures. Try rebuilding a previous creation or creating a diagram that shows the design of a structure you built.

Build, break down, and build again! For more ideas and information to help you get your young learners busy with blocks, check out the resources from the Illinois Early Learning Project website.

(Originally written for the Illinois Early Learning Project https://illinoisearlylearning.org/blogs/growing/busy-blocks/)

Early Childhood Education, Illinois Early Learning Project, Parenting

Try and Try Again

Newborns are completely dependent on their caregivers. As the weeks and months go by, they are able to do more and more. “New” skills develop quickly: smiling, reaching and grasping a toy, sitting up, scooting and crawling, cruising, and, eventually, that first independent step. Families and caregivers are excited to cheer on each new skill.

Families, teachers, and caregivers want young children to be successful. It can be hard to watch a child struggle or become frustrated. Sometimes, well-meaning adults think they are helping young children by doing things for them. However, it can be both safer and better for adults to encourage children to try things on their own or provide limited supports that encourage children to use their skills to complete part of a task.

You may have noticed that some children start talking sooner or later than others. Children reach developmental milestones at different times. Some children will need different or special supports and will meet milestones at a very different pace. Regardless of a child’s timeline on a particular skill or understanding, there are many ways that parents, caregivers, and teachers can help them develop abilities to help themselves and others in daily activities.

Imagine a group of 4 year olds trying to climb a slide’s ladder. One child may climb on her own, while a teacher may need to show another how to alternate his hands and feet by tapping on which foot or hand should be used next. Another child might be too afraid to climb up and need verbal encouragement and emotional support from an adult.

In the case of a child who is fearful or struggling to get up the ladder, adults may be tempted to help a child “too much” and just put them on the top or slide down with them. After all, the child may be focused on just being able to use the exciting slide. However, a child will be much safer, confident, and competent in using the slide by herself if adults resist that first impulse to just get her to the top and instead encourage her to try harder to climb up the ladder.

Here’s some ways adults can encourage young children to try and try again while providing a little support so they can do things on their own:

  • If a child is upset about a lost item, help them develop their problem solving skills by asking questions or helping them look for it rather than finding it for them. Ask them “Where did you think you last gave teddy a hug?” or say “let’s start looking in your cubby, and then we will check the block shelf.”
  • If a child is overwhelmed by a cleanup task after playtime, rather than clean up for him, break it down and provide a specific plan to get the job done together. Say, “I will be in charge of putting the books on the shelf, and you are in charge of getting the animals in the basket.”
  • If a child gets frustrated trying to zip her coat, rather than zipping it for her, reach from behind and show her how to start the zipper. Then encourage her to finish by letting her pull the zipper all the way up. This will give her a feeling of success and helps her slowly learn how to zip her coat by herself.

There are many moments throughout the day when young children are gaining skills to become independent. Finding the right level of support for a young child is a balancing act for the adults who care for them. Adults can find that balance for a child over time through experimentation and self-reflection. With the right balance, children can develop the persistence to try and try again, which will benefit them as they meet future challenges.

Originally written for the Illinois Early Learning Project: Try and Try Again

Early Childhood Education, Illinois Early Learning Project

Website redesign announcement from the Illinois Early Learning Project

 On behalf of the staff of the Illinois Early Learning Project , I am pleased to announce that our website has been redesigned. The Illinois Early Learning Project was started in 2001 and is funded by the Illinois State Board of Education. The web site is a source of evidence-based, reliable information on early care and education for families, caregivers, and teachers of young children in Illinois. We have resources in a variety of formats including our well known, easy to read tip sheets, videos, and information about the Project Approach. Our website includes many resources to help individuals and communities understand the Illinois Early Learning Guidelines, the Illinois Early Learning and Development Standards and most recently, the Illinois Kindergarten Learning Standards. We hope you will find the new layout to be a user-friendly and useful resource for your teaching and for your students. We also encourage you to let the families of young children in your community know about our resources through community agencies and resource fairs. Our materials are free and can be shared via print, email, and social media. A link for ordering printed materials is here located on our homepage.We have some new materials on the website that we want to highlight so you can integrate them into your teaching and outreach work. Our selection of graphic tip sheets has grown. These colorful, one-page tip sheets are great for posting on bulletin boards, sharing on social media, and easy to read. Teacher educators may wish to use them as prompts for assignments. Student can be encouraged to to reflect in small groups, discussion forums, or essays on how they might use the tip sheets as a tool in sharing child development and early learning information with families. Our new Early Learning Moments series is a resource for teacher educators presenting infant-toddler content. Use them for classroom instruction or assign them as self-study lessons.During the process of our website redesign, we carefully reviewed all of the materials on our website to ensure that we are providing current, evidence-based information in up to date and useful formats. You may find that certain links have changed. We encourage you to use the “search” field located in the upper right corner of the website. You can type in keywords to search all of our project resources. If you encounter further difficulty, our project staff would be happy to assist you via email.

Another way to search our resources is to use a database search. Click to search resources by topic and you can search our data base by keyword, language, audience, and type of media. We encourage you to show your students the different ways to search the website so they can find materials that will help them in their coursework and teaching of young children. We will continue to develop new resources and welcome you to send us ideas for resources that would meet your needs as teacher educators. You can send your ideas via our user survey. We will also be at the Sharing a Vision conference in October! Our shared session with the Early Intervention Clearinghouse will provide help in searching for resources online and our new workshop, Junkyard Math will be a hands-on workshop that will introduce the redesigned website while we explore IEL’s mathematics resources. You can also visit our table to pick up printed materials, say hello, and tell us about your work and needs as teacher educators.

This was originally written as a guest post for the Illinois Association of Teacher Educators.

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Early Childhood Education, Illinois Early Learning Project

Learn by Listening to Language: Build Phonemic Awareness Skills

When we think about young children learning to read, we might imagine children learning letter names, sight words, and exploring picture books. To become skillful readers and writers, children also need opportunities to build oral or spoken language skills in addition to these important opportunities to engage with printed words.

Oral language skills grow through listening and engaging in conversation with peers and caregivers. During these times, young children explore words, phrases, and the meaning of language. Through conversations and stories, children build vocabulary, reason, and make meaning of their world. In these moments, they are also building knowledge about the sounds and structures of language that are important for reading and writing.

Let’s take a moment to think back to how children explore language first as infants and toddlers. You might remember listening to a child coo and babble. First “ooh” and “ahh,” which eventually changed to “ma ma” and “ba ba.” You heard them repeating and playing with the sounds of language they heard around them. As children move into the preschool years, their oral language becomes more recognizable.

As children are learning to use language to express meaning, they become familiar with the sounds that make up language. Exploring the sounds of language is an important part of learning how to read and write. As children explore, they build phonemic awareness skills. Phonemic awareness is the ability to notice, think about, and work with the individual sounds in spoken words. All of these words that children learn are made up of sounds, or phonemes. Phonemes are the units of sound in language. Each bp, or eh you hear is a single phoneme. These phonemes are blended together to form words.

Most words are made of more than one phoneme. For example, the word cat is made up of three individual phonemes: K-a-t. Each phoneme can be shown by one or more graphemes. Graphemes in English are single letters or combinations of letters. When children are learning to read and write, they need to make connections between the letters they see and the sounds that they hear.

You might hear children playing with the sounds of language making up silly words, songs, and rhymes. This type of language play is important for learning to read and write. During daily routines, there are many opportunities to explore the sounds of language. The IEL project has a new tip sheet that can provides examples of how to help children learn by listening to language. These games will help your child develop an understanding of how spoken words, syllables, and sounds become printed words.

Get started by looking around you for printed words on signs. Talk about the names of people or pets around you. Talk aloud and stretch out the sounds in these words. Ask your child to guess the letter with which names or familiar words start or end. Make up silly rhymes, songs, or chants. Each time you do this, you are helping children develop skills for breaking down words when they read and building words when they write.

Written for the Illinois Early Learning Project: Learn by Listening to Language