Keep it real for early learning

It’s so easy to fall into the trap of providing more and more screen-based activities for young children to engage with because screens are convenient, mobile, make no mess and children shut up, sit still and stop nagging when engaging with them. However, when it comes to early learning we need to keep it real.

I cannot tell you how many teachers have told me of children between the ages of 4 and 7 who can do a 100-piece puzzle on an tablet (iPad etc) but cannot build one in real life; children who can problem solve and create beautiful works of art and constructions on a screen, who fall apart in the classroom because they have no real spatial planning ability having not had enough exposure to real toys and play experiences with building blocks, construction toys, sorting, matching, stacking and threading shapes, and more. These are all fundamental school readiness skills that need to be experienced through the senses in real life in order to develop fully.

We must never forget that children are multisensory beings, first and foremost, and that they take in information from their environment through all their senses. This means making a very conscious effort to provide under sevens with as many off-screen learning experiences as possible. On-screen experiences primarily stimulate the visual and auditory senses only, providing insufficient stimulation for a child to map their world, limiting their ability to create meaning and understanding for themselves which is the object of learning, after all.

This is how early learning works:

  • Children need to move in order to learn (from birth right through to Grade 7), because the body is the architect of the brain.
  • Children need concrete learning experiences by interacting with real games and toys, with real people who respond to them, touch them, connect and communicate with them. In other words, children need all their senses stimulated.
  • Seeing pictures on a page or screen is a semi-concrete learning experience and symbols such as numbers, dots and letters are an abstract form of learning. Children’s brains are so remarkable that they are learning in the concrete, semi-concrete and abstract phases all at the same time all the time, but they need far more concrete experiences (real) so that the latter two make sense to them.
  • Children need a strong visual system which means exercising the focal depth which cannot happen when the distance between the eyes and a screen never changes. Encourage children to climb jungle gyms, play catchers and hit or kick balls. Short-sightedness is reaching epidemic proportions.
  • Stimulate the two ‘hidden senses’ called vestibular and proprioception, which are so essential to early learning and really add to the argument for balancing on- and off-screen activities. The vestibular sense is situated in the inner ear and tells us about balance, direction, gravity and where our body is in space eg. whether we are we stationary or moving, upright or upside down, co-ordinates our eye movements with our head and determines normal muscle tone. The proprioceptive sense sends information through the muscles and joints to the brain, telling us where our body parts are in relation to each other, helping us to plan our movements and judge speed, force and distance eg. how hard to hit or kick a ball and being able to climb a jungle gym without having to look at our feet.

For parents who want their children to be school-ready or want to reinforce literacy and numeracy skills:

  • Watch these short video clips as I demonstrate some of the key concepts of early learning mentioned above by using the following real games and toys: Filo, Geostacks and Flip ‘n Catch.
  • And if your child is in Grade R, 1 or 2, please, please keep playing and havign fun with letters and words because reading and comprehension are some of the most important skills for success in a world of text-based information overload. I cannot recommend learning through play enough to create strong skills. And when you play together with your child you create an positive emotional bond they can associate with learning for the rest of their lives (an impression that learning is safe and fun). Click here to view Fun with Letters and here for Fun with Words.

Watching something on a screen is no substitute for the real thing, but it can be a wonderful reinforcement of what a child has already seen and experienced in real life. And that is the place for a screen in a young child’s life – not to replace but to reinforce.

In the under sevens, children need more laps and fewer apps. Keep it real rather than virtual and watch your child blossom in every way.

To purchase any of the games mentioned above, including the Fun with Letters and Fun with Words kits, please click here.