Decorating a box to make a boat

Thoughts on How Children Grow and Learn

We’ve now had two opportunities to think together about Priscilla Sloane’s recent presentation on Brain Development and Sensory Learning. A few parents joined a “drop-in” discussion one early morning, and others joined our monthly evening discussion that was part of our November Board meeting. Here are some of the “big ideas” we’ve been thinking about together:

  • Early experiences have an impact on physical development and on brain development.
  • Sensory and motor learning create a link to language, social skills, and emotional development. For example:
    • A child must be able to lift his or her head to take in facial expressions and establish eye contact – both part of early language development
  • It’s important to connect children’s current behavior with their developmental history. For example:
    • A child who tires easily, is always leaning or can’t sit at the table, may have low muscle tone
    • A child who moves too quickly or is always running may have been an early walker and had less time engaged in weight -bearing activities earlier in development. Using speed can compensate for having less control.

Children think and learn through physical activity. They need many varied opportunities to take action in their environment, experiencing a full range of tactile and sensory experiences. Children need opportunities to use open-ended materials over time that can be used in diverse and increasingly complex ways. These materials require children to problem-solve and create their own meaningful experiences, so that play ideas come from each child’s imagination and not from an external source.

We can encourage children through both our interactions and through the materials and activities we offer:

  • Model “give and take” in conversations, so that children listen as well as talk, use eye contact, experience conversations where they both give and receive full attention
  • Encourage games that require taking turns and eye contact
  • Resist the temptation to “rush” into paper work or abstract learning too early. Children need a full range of tactile/sensory experiences to develop physically. For example:
    • Offer materials that require finger work and strength – playdough, putty, clay, crayons (more than markers that require very little pressure), sand, fingerpaint, pipettes, tongs, etc.
    • Use vertical surfaces for play whenever possible to support muscle development
  • Encourage open-ended interactions with natural materials outdoors
  • Encourage pretend play and other child-organized play
  • Think about the amount of time children are spending with ipads or other technology. Using these materials too much takes time and interest away from more foundational activities.

As we approach the holiday season, it’s a good time to think about how you can best support active, hands-on learning. Remember that “less can be more” – simple open-ended materials often offer the best play value. TRUCE (Teachers Resisting Unhealthy Children’s Entertainment) has posted a useful “Toys, Play, and Young Children Action Guide” that gives a great overview of the value of play, some good toy options, and what parents can do to support their children’s optimal growth and development. Check out the guide here and look over other resources that TRUCE has on their website too. For example, you’ll find “Family Play Plans” that have a collection of simple ideas for family activities with basic materials like cardboard boxes, playdough, mud, chalk, or water:

TRUCE Toy Action Guide

TRUCE website

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