A Word Coloring Pre-Reading Activity

Coloring Over Words Pre-Reading Activity

I love getting out large pieces of paper, writing words and pictures on them, and have my toddlers and preschoolers color over them. This is a great pre-reading activity that helps children to memorize words (which is a much bigger part of learning to read than most people think). Best of all, it’s so easy to set up and do! 

I have done different versions of this activity with every one of my children, and it has been a HUGE part of what has helped them to all start reading at very young ages.

Materials Needed

  • Paper – You can use rolls of paper, large sheets, smaller sheets, or even just plain computer paper. You can also do this activity using a spiral notebook or composition notebook so that you can save all of your drawings to read later.
  • Markers – I love buying markers like these in bulk when it’s back to school season. You can also use crayons or colored pencils, but markers require less effort for little hands and produce a very satisfying line.
  • Stickers – I love getting the big Melissa and Doug sticker set like this and this. You get a lot of stickers for $5/book, and the kids love them. 
  • *Write-On Wipe Off Books – I have tried many different write-on wipe-off books, and the ones by Priddy Books are by far the best. (Don’t forget some Expo markers.) Little ones don’t need to be ready to write their letters to enjoy coloring in these books. My toddlers and preschoolers love coloring over the letters, pictures, and words and this is another great way to get children familiar with their ABCs andto learn more vocabulary.

Directions

    1. Write a smattering of short and familiar words on the paper. I like to use words that reflect their interests, but start each child with many of the same basic words like: hi, clap, wave, cat, dog, sun, bus, car, etc. (You can always type “teaching three letter words” into Google to get more ideas for words to use and resources like this as well.)
    2. Draw little pictures next to some of the words. When a word is new, I like to draw a little picture next to it. Many times I’ll even choose words based on how easy the picture would be to draw! But then after they are familiar with the word, I don’t draw the picture every time so that they can memorize the word without the visual aid.
    3. Keep writing while they color. My little ones love coloring side by side with me. I don’t typically prepare these ahead of time (unless I’m holding a baby and trying to video record at the same time), but rather we do it together. Sometimes we’ll work on the same sheet and other times they’ll color one while I prepare another.
    4. Write down names of family members. Even though names are typically longer and have more complicated spelling patterns, these are among some of the first words my little ones are able to read. In addition to the names of family members, you could also include their ages, relation (brother, sister, cousin, etc.), favorite color, girl/boy, etc.
    5. Write down letters, numbers, shapes, and colors. Children who have a strong understanding of these basic concepts will have a very strong foundation in the basics needed to succeed in preschool and kindergarten. Some of my children like seeing the whole alphabet written out, others just like a smattering of letters and the same goes with the other categories as well.
    6. Use stickers for a treat. Every so often, I like to mix things up with stickers. After putting the sticker on the paper, I will label it.
    7. Repeat, repeat, repeat. I am a big believer in following a child’s lead, and so I like to do this activity whenever my child shows an interest. This might mean we’ll do it every day or only a couple of times a month. Right now, Julian(2) LOVES coloring and so we do this activity often. I use the same words over and over again until he has mastered them or loses interest, and then I’ll cycle in new words.

Here’s a video of Julian coloring some words that I have prepared.

In Conclusion

This activity seems so simple and so easy it’s like, why even write a blog about it? But I’m telling you, it is PROFOUND in helping children learning how to read. 

Not only that, but it is a fun and special bonding time between you and your child where you’re working together, sitting side by side, having little conversations, learning about his or her specific interests, practicing the fine motor skills necessary to hold a writing utensil, and having fun!

We get so busy as parents, that doing an activity like this allows for a moment in a hectic day where you can teach, bond, and build memories together, and what could be better than that?

Coloring Station

Coloring Station

Coloring Stickers

Coloring Stickers

Coloring Write-On Wipe-Off Books

Coloring Write-On Wipe-Off Books

monster art project

A Monster Art Project

I had sooooooo much fun doing this monster art project in my son Elliot’s kindergarten class recently! I chose to do this project because Elliot LOVES monsters and he LOVES using his imagination to make characters come to life. We have enjoyed using popsicle stick puppets for many many years and he always enjoys both creating his monsters and using his imagination to play with them later.

For this project, I wanted to guide the children in using details to create their monsters with texture. I made this dice game to give the project a fun aspect that would give them a variety of options. (*Note: I searched Google images and Pinterest to get the ideas I used to create this project.)

Monster Art Lesson Objective

Monster Art Lesson Objective

Materials

Directions

  1. Introducing the Monster Art Project: I always like to start by showing children what my version of the final product looks like. That way, when I start explaining all of the steps, they will understand what the big picture will be. Also, by first doing the project myself, I have a good understanding of what things were easy and what things were more challenging. 🙂 So first I showed the children my monster popsicle puppets, we talked about what texture was, and I explained that adding details makes any project more interesting.

    Monster Popsicle Stick Puppets

    Monster Popsicle Stick Puppets

  2. Guided Practice with the Monster Dice Game: It is so tempting to just give directions and launch right into independent practice, but by starting any new skill, lesson, or project together with guidance, children will have a much deeper understanding of what they can do. To start this project, I rolled a die and had children follow along with me as we created our first monster together. For the next monster, I rolled the die again, but let them choose to either follow me or choose their own. After that, they created one or two more monsters on their own.

    Create a Monster Dice Game

    Create a Monster Dice Game

  3. Coloring the Monsters: After everyone had drawn their monsters, I handed out my monster templates. One set of templates has features missing and the other set is completed monsters that I had drawn earlier. It was nice to be able to give children a variety of entry points into the project. One aspect was drawing their own monsters, but with the other aspect of adding texture, I wanted to give them a variety of more completed options.
    Monster Templates with Missing Features

    Monster Templates with Missing Feature

    Completed Monsters Coloring Page

    Completed Monsters Coloring Page

  4. Adding Texture: It was so wonderful to see what the children added for their texture pieces. Some really wanted to copy the ideas I showed them (like unrolling cotton balls to put under the feet like smoke or adding tufts of hair using the yarn), and others really thought outside the box, especially with the foam pieces and texture scissors. One thing I didn’t do but think kids would have really enjoyed is to offer colored squares of construction paper that they could use to cut out for the shape of the body.

    Texture Supplies

    Texture Supplies

  5. Popsicle Sticks: I used a hot glue gun to attach a magnet to the back of each popsicle stick so that children could keep their monster popsicle sticks on the fridge, but really this is optional. The popsicle sticks alone are fun enough!

    Jumbo Popsicle Sticks with Magnets on the Back

    Jumbo Popsicle Sticks with Magnets on the Back

  6. Continue the Fun: This is a great ongoing project to keep set up in your classroom or home. I love having little stations set up around the house where the kids can continue to work on projects that I’ve introduced independently. Children could continue to draw more monsters using the dice game, add color and texture to monsters, or use their monster popsicle sticks to play imagination games.

    Elliot's Monsters

    Elliot’s Monsters

In Conclusion

I have an art teacher friend who explained to me that when you give children too open ended of a project, it can be hard for them to get started or know what to do, but by introducing a specific focus (like adding details and texture) it gives children the freedom to be creative within the parameters of the structure. I totally saw that in this lesson. All children were working on adding details and texture, but their monsters all looked very very different and matched their own specific interests and personalities. Not only that, but I heard from several parents that their children had fun continuing this art project at home.

I think that’s the beautiful thing about art, or any lesson for that matter. If children are excited about what they are learning, then they will continue the learning on their own.

Julian (2) Coloring Some Monsters

Julian (2) Coloring Some Monsters

Ruby (7) Playing the Create a Monster Game

Ruby (7) Playing the Create a Monster Game

26 Learning Centers for Play Based Preschool Learning

26 Learning Centers for a Homeschool Preschool Curriculum

I love setting up an environment where my young preschool aged children (and older children as well) can be engaged in play based learning. I do this by setting up lots of little centers in every room that encourage creative and imaginative play with a little bit of skill based learning thrown in there as well. This is basically a Montessori approach to learning where children are given a lot of choice in a resource rich learning environment that incorporates plenty of opportunities for guided instruction.

While being a stay at home mom and raising our four children (after being an elementary school teacher for 7 years and getting my Master’s degree in Linguistics), these are the learning centers that have worked for me and have helped all of our children learn how to read at a young age, develop curious and imaginative minds, and get ready for school.

Before I dive into the learning centers, I wanted to set the scene with a few tips and tricks that have helped my learning centers to be successful.

Tips and Tricks

  1. Little Learning Centers: Set up small tables, little chairs, small couches, and other areas that are easy to access for little ones.
  2. Organization: I love using baskets, bins, cardboard boxes (with the flaps cut off), and tubs to sort and organize my toys and supplies. I like to label things when I can as well.
  3. Children’s Choice: Introduce children to new learning centers, but after introductions are made, let them choose what they want to do. Follow them and provide guidance and support wherever they choose to be.
  4. The Way to Start Your Day: Start the day with the most learning intensive projects first. You’ve got maybe an hour or two after they wake up for optimal attention, so use your time wisely!
  5. When to Pack it Up: If I have a center set up (like a Play-doh or a water table center) that’s really messy, but doesn’t sustain their attention for very long, I will pack it up. I’m usually okay with cleaning up a big mess as long as it was really and truly worth it. *With a new baby on the way, I’m starting to pack away all centers that make a big mess, just to help me manage things a little better. 🙂
  6. Rotation: If a center isn’t getting used, I’ll pack it away. Then, when I take it out again later, it’s like a brand new toy all over again! (If they still don’t use it, I’ll just get rid of it.)
  7. Routines and Procedures: Having a good behavior management system in place will make the day run much more smoothly. I have found both as a teacher and now a parent, that most behaviors can be managed with consistent routines, procedures, and expectations.

Whether you are setting up an atmosphere for homeschool or just looking to create a stimulating learning environment for your little one(s), these learning centers are sure to engage, stimulate, and provide hours and hours of play based learning opportunities for your child(ren). Also, keep in mind that we have four children ranging in age from 21 months to 7 years, and they ALL enjoy using all of these centers to varying degrees. 🙂

Here is a little video of me showing most of the learning centers we have set up in our home.

1. ABC Magnet Letters

Learning the ABCs isn’t just about singing a song, it’s about learning BOTH the letter names AND letter sounds really really well. Doing so will lay a strong foundation for reading.

ABC Magnet Letters

ABC Magnet Letters

This ABC magnet letter center is a perfect way for little ones to explore what they are learning about letters in a fun and hands on way. *Watch a video of Ophelia using ABC magnet letters here

Using the ABC Magnet Center

Using the ABC Magnet Center

Materials Needed:

  • Magnet Letters: I like these foam ones the best (120 pieces, capitals and lowercase letters), but they are currently only available from third party sellers on Amazon. These would be pretty good too if you don’t mind the pastel colors. I do like the Melissa and Doug wooden letters (52 pieces, one capital and one lowercase for each letter), but the magnets separate from the wood after time. This set of 240 lowercase letters (blue consonants and red vowels) from Lakeshore Learning is also a really great teaching tool, but the letters just aren’t as fun for kids to use. I like using it more for a teaching tool or to set up a lot of words at once. If you look at my letter set up, you’ll notice that I like setting the magnet letters in a shallow box so that little fingers can easily dig through them. Don’t worry about sorting the letters out, they’ll just get mixed up again! 🙂 I also like having these Leapfrog ABC letters for the refrigerator.
  • Muffin Pans: I like using this 2 x 3 pan for learning three letter words, this 12 muffin pan for either three or four letter words, and this mini muffin pan for longer words (and counting practice).
  • Magnetic White Board: There are lots of different options here. You could get a larger white board to hang on the wall, mini white boards to fit on laps, a standing mini white board, or even an easel. It all depends on your space really.
  • Small Table: You don’t really have to have a table (the floor would be just fine), but it does make it more fun! I made this mini table (pictured above) using scraps of wood we had lying around, and I measured it specifically to fit this funny little place in our “homeschool room”. When I was a teacher, I liked taking the lower parts of the table legs off from my rectangular tables to make a lower work surface for kids, and they loved it!

Here is a video of 21 month old Ophelia using a variety of different ABC magnet letters.

*For more of my favorite ABC resources, check out my blog: 10 Best Resources for Teaching the ABCs.

2. Counting

Learning how to count lays the foundation for math like learning the letter names and sounds lays the foundation for reading. It can take young children a very long time to learn one-to-one-correspondence (meaning that each object represents one thing, so it is definitely a good idea to encourage children to count often.

In the picture below, you’ll see that I have a mason jar numbered and labeled. I used to have 20 or so different counting jars with different things in them from beans to legos to small cars, but these counting bears were always the favorite, so that’s all I use now. 🙂 *The Investigations math curriculum is great for teaching math concepts in a fun and exploratory way.

Counting Bears Center

Counting Bears Center

I like using anything that encourages counting like the game Connect 4. Not only is this good for counting, but it’s good fine motor skill practice for little hands too.

Counting with Connect 4

Counting with Connect 4

Materials Needed:

  • Counters: These are the counting bears that I like to use.
  • More Counters: Lakeshore Learning has TONS of great counting resources. Check them out here.
  • Mason Jars: These wide mouths jars are best for storing the counters.
  • Muffin Tin: I like using this mini muffin tin to practice counting and for my ABC Magnet Center too.
  • Connect 4: This Connect 4 game is a great way to practice counting (we usually go to 20).

3. Drawing

I really like having one table in the house set up just for drawing. This table is in our homeschool room, and I always have coloring books, workbooks, how to draw books, printouts of favorite things to draw, stencils, paper, crayons, markers, other office supplies like scissors and tape, and a little box for finished drawings laying out and ready to use.

Drawing Table

Drawing Table

Not pictured to the right is a tall bookshelf that I keep stocked with a variety of coloring and work books, mini books we have made, blank mini books ready to be filled, extra markers, and more supplies.

The pencils here in the picture below belong to our 7 year old daughter Ruby. She LOVES drawing and can be found doing one project or another here at this table every single day.

Ruby's Drawings

Ruby’s Drawings

Materials Needed:

  • Coloring Books: I like collecting coloring books and workbooks from garage sales, thrift stores, and trips to the grocery store based on whatever our children are interested in.
  • Crayons, Markers, Pencils: These are the pencils my older daughter loves. They are kind of expensive, but really good quality. I really like having this pencil sharpener too.
  • Paper: I get paper scraps from my parents’ business and cut it up for drawing paper, but blank computer paper like this works well too.
  • Printouts: I like going to Google and typing in “free coloring pages” and then whatever my kids are into like monsters, princesses, Dora, or the ABCs. I have a cool storage rack like this that I hang on the wall to hold available printouts for children to grab.

*Check out more of my arts and crafts blogs here

4. Painting

Yes, painting is messy, but soooooooooooo much fun for kids! Having a bunch of painting supplies on hand and ready to go makes for a really fun project.

My Painting Supplies

My Painting Supplies

I like letting kids draw whatever they want when we paint, but sometimes I’ll paint with them and we’ll talk about different things to paint like the sky, flowers, trees, cats, or whatever! If I’m feeling really artsy, maybe we’ll look up some famous artists someday and try to mimic their work.

Painting Over Masking Tape Letters

Painting Over Masking Tape Letters

Ruby Painting

Ruby Painting

Materials Needed:

5. Arts and Crafts Box

I love collecting things from garage sales, thrift stores, or the crafting aisles at Walmart to fill my craft box. (*I must also thank local artist Kelly Allen for giving me a bunch of crafty things when Wisemaker shut down.) I like to put most things in plastic bags and label them. It’s really fun to just take out the whole box, and get crafty!

My Craft Box

My Craft Box

Materials Needed:

  • Craft Box Items: Pom poms, little googly eyes, artificial flowers, buttons, sequins, glitter, pine cones, headbands, cotton balls, shells, pipe cleaners, paper scraps, yarn, and ribbons are some of the things I have in my craft box. Or you can just buy a random assortment of things here or here for example.
  • Glue: Glue sticks are nice for paper things, but you’ll want Elmer’s glue for bigger things, and maybe even a glue gun if you want things to be really permanent.
  • Paper: Sometimes it’s nice to make things on paper, so I like to have an assortment of large and small blank paper as well as construction paper.
  • Craft Ideas: I like letting the kids make whatever they want, but sometimes you need some inspiration or a pre-made kit like this headband kit or this bracelet kit.

6. Cutting and Gluing

Cutting is a really hard skill for little hands to master, and so any opportunities for young children to cut and glue will help prepare them for kindergarten. Sometimes it’s fun to just cut shapes out of colored paper and glue them onto large pieces of white paper. Other times, it’s fun to just cut and cut and cut! 🙂 One thing I’ve noticed though is that if a child isn’t ready to cut, don’t push it.

Fancy Cutting Scissors and Construction Paper

Fancy Cutting Scissors and Construction Paper

Materials Needed:

7. Stickers and Stamps

Stickers and stamps are a really fun way for kids to be creative, work on vocabulary and language skills, and develop their fine motor skills. I like to let the kids have complete freedom and do whatever they want with stickers and stamps, but sometimes they need a little help getting started. When this happens, I just get out my own piece of paper and think aloud as I choose what stamps to use and how to arrange my stickers. For extra vocabulary practice, I like to write descriptive words underneath the stickers or add word bubbles to the characters.

Stickers and Stamps

Stickers and Stamps

Materials Needed:

8. Write On/Wipe Off

Write on/wipe off boards are such a novel thing that it makes writing really different and fun. It’s a good way to give your child guided practice as they start to learn how to make lines, shapes, letters, numbers, and more.

Write On/Wipe Off Books and Whiteboard Center

Write On/Wipe Off Books and Whiteboard Center

Materials Needed:

9. Water Play

I usually save my water play centers for the dead of winter when we really need something to liven things up. It can get very messy, but kids LOVE it, and hey, it’s just water. When my water centers are in motion, I pretty much constantly have a load of towels in the dryer. 🙂

Water Pouring Center

Water Pouring Center

Ruby and Ophelia Pouring Water

Ruby and Ophelia Pouring Water

A less messy option is to just do water play in the sink, or better yet, in the bathtub! There have been many long winter days where we take a bath in the afternoon just for fun!

Elliot Doing Water Play in the Sink

Elliot Doing Water Play in the Sink

Materials Needed:

  • Cups and Saucers: There are many different types of tea sets that are really fun to pour with, but sometimes larger cups are fun too.
  • Tubs and Buckets: It’s nice to have a tub or bucket for collecting the water and another for pouring into. I like these rectangular dishpans a lot.
  • Water Table: I did buy this water table last winter, and it was a lot of fun, but not really as fun as the tables with cups and saucers. In the summer we keep it outside, and that has been fun, although a bit of work to keep clean.
  • Towels: I like keeping a stash of old towels hanging near the water centers.

10. Cars and Trains

Our youngest son Julian (21 months) is absolutely OBSESSED with anything that has wheels. All day long he loves pushing his cars and trucks. At the end of the day, there are little areas of cars and trucks everywhere. It’s adorable!

Toy Cars

Toy Cars

Julian Loves Pushing His Big Truck Throughout the House

Julian Loves Pushing His Big Truck Throughout the House

Even though we have an official “Car Center”, there are cars and trucks stashed in just about every room in the house!

Julian's Bedroom

Julian’s Bedroom

Materials Needed:

  • Cars and Trucks: Like with just about everything else in our home, I like finding cars and trucks at thrift stores and garage sales for $0.25 – $0.50/piece. This 20-pack Matchbox set would be a nice way to get started though, and these bulldozers and trucks would make a nice addition. I try to stay away from things that require batteries and make noise because a) they can be really annoying and b) I think that they stifle the imagination. We like using a large truck like this to store all of our cars in.
  • Ramps: We have this ramp, and it’s amazing, but apparently, they’re not making it anymore. Bummer. Something like this or this would be really fun too.
  • Train Tracks: Our kids have a lot of fun with these wooden train tracks. Smaller cars fit on them perfectly too.
  • Road Rug: The kids love our road rugs and play many imagination games using them. You can get a small one like this, or a large one like this. We got our large rug from a thrift store, but you can find some great ones on Amazon like this.

11. Building Toys

Toys that require building are my absolute favorite. They engage the children for extended periods of time, and they really help to get their creative juices flowing. When they’re first learning about how to use the building tools, my husband and I spend a lot of time building with them to model the possibilities. But once they get going, they really start learning from each other, and it’s incredible.

Many Different Kinds of Blocks

Many Different Kinds of Blocks

Big Legos, Kinex, and Unifix Cubes

Big Legos, K’nex, and Unifix Cubes

I love having this table set up just for Legos. The big kids play here as a part of their nightly bedtime routine every night while we put the little ones to bed first. We enjoy buying and making Lego kits from time to time, but mostly they just enjoy building whatever they’d like.

Lego Table

Lego Table

Ophelia and Ruby Building with K'nex

Ophelia and Ruby Building with K’nex

Materials Needed:

  • Big Legos: I like using two bags of these big legos at once. I have a large cardboard box that I cut the flaps off from, cut the front down so that little hands can reach in, and reinforced it with duct tape.
  • Small Legos: We inherited my husband’s old lego set from when he was a kid, but you can buy some basic legos like these. We have also enjoyed making many kits together, but when we’re done, the pieces just get thrown into the collection. I love using large shallow Amazon boxes with the flaps cut off, or a storage tub like this to store the legos in so that kids can find the pieces they’re looking for more easily.
  • Mathlink Cubes: These cubes are great for learning about patterns, counting, or just using to make swords and towers.
  • K’nex: There are so many different ways kids can play with these K’nex building toys. While there may be many different kits available, we have never tried any out.
  • Wooden Blocks: These large wooden blocks are something you must have! We also like these small colored blocks, these ABC blocks, and while we don’t have these large cardboard bricks, I always thought they would be fun to have.
  • Other Fun Building Toys: We don’t have the following building toys, but they are on my wish list!

12. Reading Nooks

I like having little reading spaces all over the house. By making the books easy to see and easy to reach, children are more likely to become engaged with them.

Little Chair and Boxes with Books

Little Chair and Boxes with Books

I like rotating my books based on who is reading them and where. The older children are able to go to the bookshelves to select books, and they each have huge assortments of books in their rooms, so I kind of like to keep my baskets of books and little chairs geared for the little ones.

Little Reading Chairs with a Basket of Books Inbetween

Little Reading Chairs with a Basket of Books Inbetween

Materials Needed:

  • Little Furniture: We bought our mini chairs at our local Walmart, but if I were to buy some online, these mini bean bag chairs look great and have great reviews, and this sturdy wooden framed chair would be the dream! I highly recommend getting something that has a removable cover that can be washed! We inherited a mini couch like this from my parents who bought it for my twin sisters (who are now grown). I think it really pays to buy quality when it’s an item that will get used a lot, but this foam mini couch would be really fun too.
  • Book Baskets: I started collecting wicker baskets like these when Ruby was born to hold diapers and such, and the size and shape is just perfect for storing books! I think this lined wicker basket would be even better, but it’s twice as much. I think it’s really important to fan the books out so that as many can be seen as possible (so big ones in the back), and so they are really easy to grab.
  • Bookshelves: I like storing chapter books and books waiting to be rotated in, as well as our adult books, on bookshelves. We have picked up small ones like thisbig ones like this, and square ones like this over the years at garage sales and thrift stores that have worked really well. I never bought one, but I always thought this book rack storage shelf would be really cool too.
  • Best Books: I have a blog about my favorite books for babies and an Amazon astore with my favorite books for children of all ages, but mainly, I just try to find really good garage sales where the books are like $0.10/each and stock up on ones that cover content, have interesting pictures, and contain text that is on the larger side. I’m always looking for really good sturdy board books especially.

*Read more of my blogs about teaching reading here.

13. Favorite Things Books

I believe in giving children a foundation of learning by helping them master the basic skills, but after that, I like to let them choose to engage in whatever they are interested in. These favorite things books are a great way for me to encourage each child to follow his or her own learning path. Basically, I just do Google image searches and print out pictures of their favorite things.

Ruby’s Favorite Things book is filled with her favorite Miyazaki films, My Little Pony characters, Digimon characters, and pictures of special memories that we printed out. Elliot is really into monsters, superheroes, Godzilla, octopuses, and anything gross. Ophelia loves learning about the ABCs, counting, Dora, seasons, weather, maps, and more, so her book is more educationally themed.

Ophelia, Ruby, and Elliot's Favorite Things Books

Ophelia, Ruby, and Elliot’s Favorite Things Books

Inside Ophelia, Ruby, and Elliot's Favorite Things Books

Inside Ophelia, Ruby, and Elliot’s Favorite Things Books

Ophelia Reading Her Favorite Things Book

Ophelia Reading Her Favorite Things Book

Materials Needed:

  • Paper: I like using laminated covers and card stock like this for the pages. Sometimes I just print the images right on the page, and sometimes I cut and glue them. This paper cutter has been very handy.
  • Printer: Finding a good printer is tough, and I am not too happy with the printer choices we have made in the past. But my dad owns a small business where he does a lot of printing and highly recommends the Epson WorkForce ET-4550. He says it prints great and the replacement ink is VERY affordable because it uses liquid refills. Once we’re out of ink for our current printer, we will be purchasing this one!
  • Laminator: This is the laminator I have. It is really basic, has a good price, and works great! This one is about the same price and has even better reviews though.
  • Binder: I have tried the comb binding (with binding spines) and it is affordable and easy to use, but not super durable (yet simple enough to fix). I have also tried the cinch binding (with binding wires) that is much more durable but the binding wires are quite expensive.

14. Little Figures and Houses

Creative and imaginative play is one of THE MOST IMPORTANT aspects of childhood. When I was a third grade teacher, I was always amazed when kids had no idea what to do with themselves during recess. When I was growing up, my brother and I always played intricate imagination games that would take us to other worlds and keep us engaged for hours.

Playing with little figures and houses is an excellent way for young children to use play to make sense of the world around them. Sometimes their play is about real things (going to bed, taking a bath, getting dressed) and sometimes it’s a completely made up fantasy.

Little House and Mini Figures

Little House and Mini Figures

When Ruby and Elliot were first starting to show interest in little house and mini figures, we would get on the floor and play with them as we modeled different scenarios with heroes and villains as well as other story lines that they could play along with. Now, Ophelia and Julian are learning from their older siblings how to do the same thing.

Doll House with Toy Baskets

Doll House with Toy Baskets

We have little houses and figures in just about every room in the house, and they always keep our children engaged in imaginative play for extended periods of time.

Ruby and Elliot Playing with Little Houses and Figures

Ruby and Elliot Playing with Little Houses and Figures

Materials Needed:

  • Little Houses: Just like with everything else, we look for all sorts of houses, castles, barns, tree house, and any other structures at garage sales and thrift stores. These things are so expensive to buy new, but just look on Craigslist or find a way to buy them used. Otherwise, Fisher Price Little People houses like this small one or this larger one are great too.
  • Figures: We are always buying these My Busy Books at the grocery store, not so much for the book and play mat, but for the mini figures inside. I am always on the lookout for small figures like these superheroes and these Peanuts characters. I try to stay away from Barbies and anything else that objectifies women.
  • Baskets: I like using wide shallow baskets like this because children only like to play with what they can see. This toy rack has also been very nice for organizing toys (although I just dump anything anywhere, it at least looks organized).

15. Dress Up

Playing dress up is another really great way for children to use their imaginations. By getting dressed up, they can become a different person with new characteristics. This imaginative play is a very important aspect of their development and actually a key piece of the highly successful Tools of the Mind Preschool Curriculum.

Dress Up Clothes and Hats

Dress Up Clothes and Hats

Sometimes when children get dressed up, they don’t know what to do. I like to provide scenarios and props to help spin them into action (usually some kind of problem and solution involving a hero and villain works well). Being able to engage in extended imaginative play (without adult interaction) is a very important skill for little ones to develop. It teaches them how to sustain their attention on something for an extended period of time and fosters all sorts of creativity that is a much more important aspect of an optimal learning environment than some would think.

Dress Up Dresses

Dress Up Dresses

Ophelia is a Cowgirl!

Ophelia is a Cowgirl!

I like looking for dress up clothes at garages year round, but my favorite thing to do is to hit up thrift stores right before Halloween to pick up more outfits, hats, and props to add to my collection.

Materials Needed:

16. Music

My husband is very musical, and so we have him to thank for filling our house with such wonderful instruments. He is talented at playing just about everything and has a very good ear for music. The kids love sitting on his lap while he plays the drums and we all enjoy making family music together.

Drums, Keyboard, Bass Guitar, Electric Guitar, and Amp

Drums, Keyboard, Bass Guitar, Electric Guitar, and Amp

I have placed colored stickers on the keyboard with letters on them to teach kids the names of the keys. We like printing out simple song sheets (look for ones that have the notes and letters for each note) and color coding them so that the children can learn how to read music.

Keyboard with Labeled Keys

Keyboard with Labeled Keys

Materials Needed:

17. Puzzles

Puzzles are an excellent way for children to practice their dexterity while also learning about the vocabulary and content of the puzzle. Yes, there are times when I have to hide my puzzles when the little ones want to just dump all of the pieces out in one big jumble, but when they’re ready to actually sit down and attend to one (or maybe two) puzzles at a time, then I leave them out!

Puzzle Rack

Puzzle Rack

Playing with Puzzles

Playing with Puzzles

Materials Needed:

18. Pocket Charts

There are many different pocket charts that you can get for a variety of purposes. I like having my pocket chart as an interactive wall center. Sometimes I use pre-made cards, sometimes I use my own flashcards, and sometimes I use flashcards that the kids have colored. There are so many different options for pocket charts and the best thing is that they don’t take up any floor space!

Pocket Chart with Beginning Word Sounds

Pocket Chart with Beginning Word Sounds

Materials Needed:

19. Play-Doh

Play-Doh is a fun moldable adventure for children. Little fingers love squishing and squashing it, and there are so many different options for creativity.

Ophelia and Elliot Playing with Play-Doh

Ophelia and Elliot Playing with Play-Doh

I like keeping my Play-Doh supplies stored in cardboard boxes (from Amazon) with the flaps cut off and labeled with mailing labels. It’s nice to have a table or space on the floor to play with the Play-Doh so that it doesn’t get ground into the carpet. Right now, my Ophelia is obsessed with this

Materials Needed:

20. Puppets

Puppets are a wonderful way to teach children new things or entertain them using funny voices and silly dialogue. I enjoy using puppets to talk to my children or read them books and we all like putting on puppet shows.

Puppet Stand

Puppet Stand

Materials Needed:

  • Puppet Stand: I made this puppet stand using spare scraps of wood we had lying around. It’s a good thing it’s covered up with fabric, because it’s a very crude job! I even had to screw it into the wall just so it would stay standing. 🙂 If you don’t feel like making your own, you could certainly just buy one like this.
  • Hand Puppets: These animal hand puppets are great (and a good price), but I really like the puppets with mouths that open, and my kids LOVE our Ernie and Kermit the Frog puppets because they recognize the characters. You can get this Sesame Street Puppet Collection here, but it is pretty pricey. This set of 8 multi-ethnic puppets is a better value.
  • Finger Puppets: This is a great 16 piece finger puppet set.

21. Games

I love, love, LOVE these big cupboards with shelves that we inherited when we bought our house, and I have one entire cupboard where we keep most of our board games. Many games I have found at garage sales and thrift stores, and many others have been on wish lists for Christmas and Birthdays. The frustrating thing about the popular games these days is that they seem to be made cheaper and cheaper with each generation. I like finding older versions of classic games like Connect 4 and Guess Who that are of obviously superior quality.

Our Board Game Cupboard

Our Board Game Cupboard

When little ones are first learning about board games, I find that it is very important to let them play however they want. When they are ready, they’ll want to play by the rules, so in the meantime, don’t make everyone frustrated by forcing it.

We try to make it common practice to just take out one game at a time, and we try to not make TOO big of a mess. Also, I’m sure there are a ton more great games (especially educational ones) out there, but we usually look for ours second hand, so we just get what we can find! 🙂

Materials Needed:

22. Science

When I think of teaching little ones science, I think about teaching them how to see the world up close and giving them opportunities to explore it. I want them to get magnifying glasses and look at bugs…how they move, where they’re going, they’re characteristics, I want them to catch frogs and learn how to gently handle them, I want them to observe the colors of the sky and to see the patterns in the clouds, I want them to get messy as they compare the texture of dirt to mud, and most of all, I want them to play, explore, wonder, question, and see…really see the world.

Ruby and Elliot in the Garden

Ruby and Elliot in the Garden

Ruby and Elliot Doing a Vinegar and Baking Soda Experiment

Ruby and Elliot Doing a Vinegar and Baking Soda Experiment

Materials Needed:

23. Social Studies

Learning about where we are in place in time should be a gradual infiltration of knowledge instead of a sudden mind dump. As a third grade teacher introducing concepts such as “we live in a city that is part of a state that is part of a country that is part of a continent” and “before we lived here other people lived here with fewer advancements in technology” are all really big ideas that can be hard to grasp when introduced too quickly.

The more children can be exposed to these concepts at a young age, the more receptive they will be to learn about them more in depth at a later age.

State, World, and Universe Maps

State, World, and Universe Maps

Materials Needed:

24. My Favorite Workbooks

During the summer (and weekends, holidays, etc.), I have a pretty nice routine that involves all of us adopting a homeschool framework that helps all of us to be productive and accountable. First thing in the morning, I like to have my older ones do about 2-4 pages from any workbook of their choosing. Sometimes the little ones like to do workbooks too, sometimes they just color, and sometimes they’re playing elsewhere. 🙂

My Favorite Workbooks

My Favorite Workbooks

Some kids really really like sitting down and doing workbooks, and some just don’t. I think you have to find what works for your child. Try to expose them to some pencil paper activities where you can and let their interests lead the way.

Materials Needed:

  • Kumon Books: Every single Kumon book is simple, fun, direct, to the point, and a very effective teaching too. I love everything they make from tracing and mazes, to addition and subtraction, to upper and lowercase letters, to rhyming words, and much much more.
  • Brain Quest: I love everything Brain Quest makes! Their workbooks are high quality with full color, simple graphics, age appropriate content, and fun for kids. You might like starting with the Pre-K or K workbook for your little one.
  • Star Wars: When I was doing homeschool preschool with my son Elliot, he was pretty reluctant to sit down and do any sort of workbooks, but he loved these Star Wars workbooks! We enjoyed the Kindergarten Phonics and ABCs and Kindergarten Math Skills. There’s also some really great Preschool ABC and Preschool Number workbooks.
  • Investigations Math: This curriculum does an amazing job of making learning math fun! There are lots of different games that help to build math concepts. You can buy individual student books by grade level on Amazon like this K workbook. If you go to the Investigations ordering page, you’ll see that it’s not super easy to order from them unless you’re buying the whole kit and kaboodle.
  • Grocery Store Books: If you go to the book section at any grocery store or Walmart, there’s always a selection of different workbooks. I have enjoyed using these as well. If you live near any teacher stores, I highly recommend going there and just looking through the resources in person.

25. Technology

We have always enjoyed using technology as a teaching tool with our little ones. Read more about why we don’t ban screen time for our little ones under two here, and also read more about how we set limits with technology here. If you are the type of parent who has trouble setting limits, leaves the TV on all day even if no one is watching it, or is struggling with young ones who want to spend all day in front of a screen, then you might want to skip this section. But if you’re okay with using technology in a structured and supervised way, then you might love the following blogs:

Our Favorite Preschool Apps

Our Favorite Preschool Apps

In Conclusion

By setting up a stimulating environment filled with many different learning centers, your little ones will not only be engaged, they will be growing and developing so fast that you might find it hard to keep up, and that is definitely not something to complain about!

You don’t have to be a teacher in order to provide your child with a stimulating learning environment, and you don’t need to wait until you send them off to school before you can expect them to learn anything. Babies and young children crave stimulation and learning. and you’re not going to find all that you need in workbooks and paper/pencil activities. Kids need opportunities to learn through play, and play based learning centers are a great way to get started!

For Further Reading

  • Zone of Proximal Development: Children of all ages, babies included, love to be challenged. By providing learning opportunities that are at the right level for your child and by scaffolding them to new learning, they will be engaged, happy, and continuously making advancements.
  • Learning Goals: Now, I’m not talking about state standards, lesson plan books, and goal sheets, I’m talking about knowing where your children are developmentally and thinking about where they could go next based on their ages, abilities, personalities, etc. Knowing this will help you to design your learning environment with each child’s needs in mine. See examples of the learning goals I set for my children here.
  • How Children Learn: When you look at brain development and see that the neurons in a child’s brain peak at about 2-3 years of age, you will understand why I believe that this is the most crucial window of opportunity there is.
  • Oral Language Development: Learning how to speak is what represents the background knowledge that children will bring to every new learning experience that they encounter.
Best Educational Programs for Young Children

19 Educational Programs for Young Children to Watch

Setting reasonable limits for screen time means that your children can enjoy some quality educational programming as a part of their balanced day. Studies show that children who watch educational programming at a young age actually perform better academically than children who do not. (Especially when “anti-educational” fast paced programs, like SpongeBob, are avoided.) Setting reasonable expectations for screen time, even for educational programming, is a very helpful part of the process.

In order to watch these programs, we connect our TV to our computer and are purposeful about all that we watch. If you decide to cancel your cable subscription, you can use the money you save for to spend $9.99/mo. on a Netflix subscription and/or $99/yr on an Amazon Prime subscription, and purchase some of these DVDs, and then (with the help of free YouTube, PBS, and Nick Jr. programs) you will have all you ever need to entertain and teach your kids!

So, when our children DO watch TV, the are the educational programs our little ones have been entertained by, learned from, and wanted to watch over and over again.

1. Preschool Prep

These videos have played a fundamental role in teaching our children their letter names, letter sounds, digraphs, consonant blends, sight words, shapes, colors, and numbers. We show them to our little babies to introduce them to the concepts, again as toddlers when they are fully engaged, and again during the preschool years for good review.

Preschool Prep DVDs

Preschool Prep DVDs

Buy the entire 10 DVD collection here for $60! If you get anything, at least get the Letter Names and Letter Sounds DVDs and your children will learn their ABCs in no time (which will help them learn how to read at a much younger age than you might imagine, check out more of my favorite ABC resources here and my Embracing Motherhood Store here.

2.  Leapfrog

These videos have a story line that makes them more engaging for an older child learning his or her alphabet, but I still love them for reinforcing letter sounds and other great concepts such as numbers, shapes, opposite words, and more. The characters are cute and engaging, and all of our children really like these programs in addition to the corresponding educational toys.

Leapfrog

Leapfrog

Get a 3 DVD collection of some of our favorites (Amazing Alphabet, Learn to Read, and Numbers Ahoy) here for $10.29, or you can watch 12 episodes on Netflix (if you have a subscription). There are also lots of great toys, like this Leapfrog Fridge Magnet set, this Leapfrog Letter Discoveries Board, and this Leapfrog Scribble and Write Tablet that will help your children learn their letters.

3. Your Baby Can Learn

I stumbled across what were originally called “Your Baby Can Read” videos before our first daughter was born and started watching them with her when she was 6 months old. By watching these videos, teaching her the ABCs, and reading lots and lots of books, she was reading by the age of two. I am very sad that they went out of business because some people were mad about the idea of having children under two watch TV, but they are rebranding themselves and coming out with new and wonderful videos that your little ones will love and learn a lot from.

Your Baby Can Learn

Your Baby Can Learn

You can buy the entire learning kit online ($150) that includes videos, flashcards, and teaching tips that will make learning how to read very fun and possible for children at a very young age. Or, you can check out their YouTube Channel to see free videos. I love how they are now making learning videos for all languages. My three year old daughter Ophelia LOVES language, is an amazing reader, and is really excited to learn other languages too. You can also just type in “your baby can read” into Youtube and find some of their original videos that I simply love!

Your Baby Can Learn Deluxe Kit

Your Baby Can Learn Deluxe Kit

These videos have inspired me to create my own system to teach young children how to read. You can see what I have so far at my Embracing Motherhood store and stay tuned for more!

ABC Flashcards

ABC Flashcards

4. Bada Namu

This is a cute little show that my kids actually found through YouTube Kids. It’s really great at teaching vocabulary and has lots of cute songs. I love how the lyrics are displayed at the bottom of the screen so that children can read along as they listen to the songs.

bada-namu

You can go to their YouTube Channel to see all of their videos and check out their pre-made playlists. If you go to their website, they have an entire curriculum to teach your little ones everything they need to know. The resources look really awesome!

5. Maisy

This show is particularly engaging for babies and toddlers, but the older ones don’t mind it too much either. This show focuses on simple concepts like bedtime and birthday which is great for teaching little ones about their world. I especially like watching this show so that my little ones will get engaged with the Maisy books like this 16 book collection (for $53.99).

Maisy

Maisy

You can watch full episodes for free on YouTube or you can buy the DVDs. We like the Goodnight Maisy DVD (for $8.97), the Good Morning Maisy DVD (for $9.36), and the Playtime Maisy DVD (for $9.32) to name a few.

6. Daniel Tiger’s Neighborhood

This show was modeled after Mr. Roger’s Neighborhood and even approved by Ms. Roger’s herself. It teaches children a lot about how to handle their emotions and about really basic concepts that they may deal with on a daily basis like trying new foods and making new friends. We pretty much love all PBS programming, and this is no exception.

daniel_tigers_neighborhood_logo

Daniel Tiger’s Neighborhood

You can watch episodes for free, play games, watch stories, and color on the PBS website.

7. Harold and the Purple Crayon

Growing up as a child, I always loved reading Harold and the Purple Crayon. The simplicity and creative imagination it evoked seemed to open up a world of possibilities in my mind. We stumbled across this show, narrated by Sharon Stone, and were mesmerized by the melodic tone of the show. It’s a great show to watch during rest time or before bed because of the calm music and gentle stories that put you in a sort of dreamland with the feeling of being read a story.

Harold and the Purple Crayon

Harold and the Purple Crayon

You can watch full episodes for free on YouTube or buy the DVDs on Amazon if you would like to watch this lovely program. I also highly recommend checking out some of the many Harold and the Purple Crayon books.

8. Blue’s Clues

This show is simple, predictable, engaging, and has fun cute characters that are very entertaining for young children. I love the concept of solving a mystery and how real children are incorporated into the show.

blues clues

Blue’s Clues

You can buy DVDs, like this Blue’s Clues Alphabet Power for $5.99, or you can watch full episodes for free on Nick Jr. Our children also enjoy the many Blue’s Clues books.

9. Peep and the Big Wide World

This show is extremely simple and engaging for toddlers in a way that feels like someone is reading them a story. I also like how it connects to real children trying out experiments that relate to the concepts in the show.

peep and the big wide world

Peep and the Big Wide World

You can buy DVDs, like this 3-disc collection of Peep and His Pals for $12.99, you can watch it for free here on YouTube, or you can watch free episodes and play games here.

10. Sesame Street

I grew up loving Sesame Street as a child, and to this day, sometimes I just prefer watching the older episodes. 🙂 But Sesame Street has continued to change with the times while still maintaining their recognizable and lovable characters.

sesame-street

Sesame Street

You can go to the PBS website to watch full episodes, play games, and do art activities, but I’m most impressed with their comprehensive YouTube Channel. You can watch videos here sorted by your child’s favorite character, watch different playlist compilations, or just explore all of their videos.

11. Peppa Pig

This is a fun little show that we recently stumbled upon. Our kids of all ages (1-7) love watching it. Maybe it’s the narrator’s accent that they love most of all, but at any rate, the simple story line and message of the show is really cute and engaging.

peppa_pig

Peppa Pig

You can watch full episodes for free on YouTube just by typing “peppa pig full episodes” into the search bar. You could also buy some DVD sets on Amazon along with some cute books and toys.

12. Backyardigans

This is a great show for modeling the use of imagination. I love how all of the characters come together in their backyards and then enter these creative worlds that they design in their minds.

Backyardigans

Backyardigans

You can watch free full episodes on the Nick Jr. website, watch full seasons of episodes on Amazon Prime, do a YouTube search for “Backyardigans full episodes“, or buy DVDs on Amazon. Our kids have also enjoyed reading the many Backyardigans books.

13. Super Why

Even though this is really designed for more of a preschooler to school aged child, our toddler has still really enjoyed it. It does a wonderful job of teaching the basic concepts of reading using characters and problems that children can relate to. I also like the Super Why books and learning games available.

4-superwhy-group

Super Why

You can buy DVDs, like this Fairytale Double Feature for $8.29, or you can watch seasons 1 and 2 on Netflix (if you have a subscription), or watch it on PBS if you have a cable subscription. *PBS has some Super Why games too.

14. Wild Kratts

This is a great program for teaching children about animals. I love how it switches from the cartoon characters to real life characters and animals. There is also a nice set of corresponding Wild Kratts books.

Wild Kratts

Wild Kratts

You can buy DVDs, like this Wildest Animals Adventures 5 disc compilation for $23.69, watch seasons 1, 2, and 3 on Netflix (if you have a subscription), or watch a select amount of videos on PBS for free.

15. Little Einsteins

I love how each program incorporates famous artists and composers and uses them throughout the program as part of the storyline. The show is very engaging, moves at a nice pace, and provides a balanced amount of learning and entertainment. There are also many Little Einstein books to enjoy.

little einsteins

Little Einsteins

You can buy DVDs, like this 3-Pack of Favorite Adventures for $24.96, or you can watch seasons 1 and 2 on Netflix (if you have a subscription). You can also watch a select number of videos and play Little Einstein games on Disney Jr.

16. Dora

Both of our girls (and the boys somewhat too) have LOVED this program as toddlers! I love the way the show teaches sequencing with the beginning, middle, end concept of a story while teaching Spanish at the same time. I especially love how watching the show has made our girls LOVE reading Dora books.

dora

Dora the Exlplorer

You can watch free full episodes on the Nick Jr. website, you can buy Dora DVDs, like this Greatest Adventure’s DVD (with a run time of 198 minutes) for $7.99, or you can watch full episodes on YouTube if you search for “Dora full episodes“. We used to watch full episodes on Netflix, but they’re not there anymore. You can find them on Amazon Prime, however. Our kids also really like Dora in the City. There are also some great educational Dora apps.

17. Magic School Bus

This show really appeals to more of preschool to school age children and does a wonderful job of teaching scientific concepts in a fun and engaging storyline with the unpredictable Ms. Frizzle! There are also tons of Magic School Bus books (like this one about the solar system, this one about the human body, and this one about the dinosaurs), and that connect to the TV programs.

the-magic-school-bus

The Magic School Bus

You can buy the entire 52 episode collection on 8 discs for $35.99 here, or you can watch all four seasons on Netflix (if you have a subscription).

18. Sid the Science Kid

This program is great for younger children and does an amazing job teaching basic scientific concepts such as why we need to brush our teeth, how we grow, and simple machines. The simplicity and predictability of the program are engaging, and I love how it shows clips of real kids and gives you ideas of things you can do at home. We really like the Sid’s Science Fair app too.

sid-the-science-kid-logo

Sid the Science Kid

You can buy some episodes on Amazon, like this one about rainbows (for $5.99), this one about weather (for $4.99), or this movie (for $5.99) or you can watch episodes at PBS Kids.

19. The Amoeba Sisters

This is definitely for the older preschool child (up to an adult), and may not be engaging for all, but our son Elliot started watching this when he was 4 year old. He LOVES the cute little characters with word bubbles and he LOVES learning about the science of biology, so this has been perfect! I really like it too because it helps me to learn as well!

Amoeba Sisters

Amoeba Sisters

Go to their YouTube channel here. You can watch all of the videos in order on their playlist, and I highly recommend subscribing so that you can stay up to date with any new videos.

In Conclusion

I love having some simple shows for the kids to watch when I need them to be entertained and know that they are going to be learning and benefiting in some way. I know that some people feel that banning all technology and TV and screen time is a good idea, but that’s just not something that works in our family. By setting reasonable limits with screen time using routines, I feel like we have a very good balance in our household.

Check out more of my technology blogs here, or check out more of my nature blogs here to see how we engage our children with outdoor activities as well! You might also like my blog: My Favorite YouTube Playlists for Teaching Kids Ages 0-6.

My 10 Favorite Resources for Teaching the ABCs Embracing Motherhood

10 Best Resources for Teaching the ABCs

Learning the ABCs (letter names AND letter sounds) is the bedrock for learning how to read. While you can certainly do a lot with just YouTube videos and some homemade supplies, these are the resources that have helped our four children learn their ABCs really really well in a way that revolves around play.

While everything you’ll need to teach the letter names, letter sounds, and word associated with each letter is included in my ABC Kit at my Embracing Motherhood Shop, these resources have been fun, engaging, and loved.

1. Leapfrog Fridge Letters

If you could only buy one thing to help your child learn his or her letters, it should be these Leapfrog Letters!  All of our children have enjoyed playing with these letters, learning about letter names and sounds, spelling words, and listening to the sounds and songs that are played.

Leapfrog Fridge Phonics

Leapfrog Fridge Phonics

Below is a video of my daughter Ophelia at 21 months playing with her Leapfrog Fridge Phonics set, and also some wooden magnet letters (that I’ll talk about next).

2. ABC Foam Magnet Letters

I love these foam letters because they are durable, fun to handle, and I love there are multiple copies of each letter including upper and lowercase.

foam-abc-magnet-letters

Foam ABC Magnet Letters

You can get also these cute Melissa and Doug wooden letters, but I have had some problems with them peeling apart (especially after they’ve been thrown into the water table or toilet a time or two). I also like using a muffin tin like this for teaching my children how to spell three letter words.

My ABC Magnet Station

My ABC Magnet Station

3. ABC Bath Letters

The bath can be kind of boring without a few toys, so why not make it fun and educational with some bath letters? If you’re taking a bath with your little one, this can be a great time to talk about letter name and letter sounds.

ABC Bath Letters

ABC Bath Letters

You also might like this really great storage caddy to keep them organized and within easy reach during the bath.

4. Leapfrog ABC Toys

Pretty much all Leapfrog ABC toys are great, and this Leapfrog ABC Tablet has been a real favorite.

abc-tablet

Leapfrog ABC Tablet

I like looking for Leapfrog learning toys at garage sales and thrift stores, but you can also buy some new like this ABC Dinosaur, ABC dog, and Alphabet Zoo.

Below is a video of Ophelia playing with our Leapfrog tablet.

5. VTech ABC Toys

This company makes really great educational toys for small children, and this ABC Apple is something that all of our kids fight over.

abc-apple

VTech ABC Apple

Some other great looking VTech toys are the ABC Bus, Spelling Station, and Write and Learn Creative Center.

6. Preschool Prep Videos

Meet the Letters and Meet the Phonics – Letter Sounds will cover everything your child needs to know about letter names and letter sounds in a very fun and engaging way.

preschool-prep-letter-names

Meet the Letters

preschool-prep-letter-sounds

Meet the Phonics: Letter Sounds

You might also enjoy getting the entire boxed set which has everything your child will need to know about letter names, letter sounds, digraphs, blends, numbers, shapes, colors, and sight words.

7. ABC Puzzles

Puzzles are a great way for toddlers and young children to explore the alphabet in a tactile manner. I really like this Melissa and Doug ABC puzzle because the pegs make it really easy to handle each letter, and I like the pictures associated with each letter too.

Melissa and Doug ABC Puzzle

Melissa and Doug ABC Puzzle

This stand up wooden puzzle and this flat wooden puzzle with upper and lowercase letters are great ABC puzzles too. When your child is ready for a more complex puzzle, I love floor puzzles like this giant Eric Carle ABC Floor Puzzle. We also love using our matching pairs puzzle.

abc-matching-pairs-puzzle

ABC Matching Pairs Puzzle

8. ABC Rug

If you have the space for it (and the money), this rug has been one of my favorite purchases ever. The kids love running in circles around it saying the letters, and the solar system in the middle is another great teaching tool.

abc-rug

ABC Rug

At 5’4″ x 7’8″, this rectangular rug fits in our homeschool room perfectly, but you can also get a 7’8″ x 10’9″ rectangular rug, a 5’4″ x 7’8″ oval or 7’8″ x 10’9″ oval rug as well. This ABC rug looks really cute too.

 

9. ABC Posters

All of my kids have loved learning their sign language ABCs, and this ABC sign language poster is a great addition to any room. Check out this great sign language ABC video, and this one, and this one too.

abc-sign-language-poster

ABC Sign Language Poster

I like having handwriting posters up as well. Here’s the one I like for print, and here’s the one I like for cursive. This ABC “poster” (pictured below) is really cool because each letter is actually a sticker which allows you to get creative about where you put it.

ABC Bulletin Board

ABC Bulletin Board

For a more interactive poster, I love using my wall hanging pocket chart with these beginning sound cards. There are many other cards you can get from Smethport that are useful for teaching other skills as well.

10. Robot Letters

These ABC robot letters from Lakeshore Learning have been an absolute favorite with our son Elliot. He has always loved transformers and robots, and these were great for helping him to learn about his letters. We got these for him for his 3rd birthday, and at that time, we had to help him transform the robots. When he was about 4, he was able to transform them on his own.

alphabet-robots

ABC Robot Letters

Lakeshore Learning has so many amazing and wonderful things, like these alphabet tubs for learning letter sounds, this alphabet maze, these learning locks, and so, so much more!

alphabet-tubs

Letter Sound Alphabet Tubs

*Starfall

Okay, so this is really #11, but it is the most amazing resource I have ever come across. Now, you will need a computer, ipad or iphone to access the Starfall website or app, but it is an absolutely amazing resource for teaching children the ABCs and so much more.

Starfall abc

Starfall ABCs

People have asked me what I think of other programs such as ABC Mouse, Always Ice Cream, and Clever Dragons, and nothing I have seen or used holds a candle to what Starfall provides. You can play the ABC portion on the website for free, or you can get a home membership for $35/year. You can use your phone, ipad mini, or regular ipad to play the ABC app (for free) which is very easy for little ones to use with the touch screen. *Here’s a video of me using Starfall Math with our son Elliot.

*If you’re looking for more great apps for preschoolers, check out my blog here: Best Teaching Apps for Young Children (Ages 0-6).

In Conclusion

Of course, I want you to get my ABC kit with flashcards, book, mini cards, poster, video, and teaching tips booklet to teach your little one the ABCs found at my Embracing Motherhood Shop, but these additional resources that I’ve gone over here are things that my children have enjoyed as I have created an environment conducive to learning and have made their learning experiences seem effortless and fun.

4 Ingredient Slime Putty

silly putty colors

Slime Putty Colors

We are always looking for quick and easy art projects, and this one fit the bill! Ruby actually found this recipe on YouTube Kids, and we just so happened so have all of the ingredients to make it laying around! This recipe was an instant hit with the kids, and after playing with the first batch, they wanted to make a variety of colors. This was quick and easy to make and the kids have really enjoyed playing with it…which is a win, win, win!

Ingredients

Directions

  1. Dump out the glue into the bowl. Tip those bottles upside down and get out as much glue as you can!

    elliot adding glue to make slime putty

    Elliot Dumping Out Glue

  2. Mix in the food coloring. Start with a few drops, stir, and then add more as needed to achieve your desired color.

    elliot adding food coloring to make slime putty

    Adding the Food Coloring

  3. Make the borax mixture. Fill up a cup with warm/hot water and mix in about a teaspoon of borax. Let it sit/stir it until it dissolves.

    mixing borax and water for making slime putty

    Mixing Borax and Water

  4. Add the borax mixture to the glue. *This part is really tricky and very easy to mess up! If you add too much of the borax mixture, it will turn to a hard blob, if you don’t add enough, it will stick to your hands.
    adding borax mixture to glue to make slime putty

    Adding Borax Mixture to Glue

    You want to add just a little bit, stir, stir, stir, add a bit more, stir some more, mix with your fingers (about 2 minutes), then only add more if it’s still sticky. Trust me, add less than you think you’ll need and you’ll be just fine.

    mixing slime putty mixture by hand

    Mix it By Hand

  5. Final Slime Putty: The consistency should be soft and stretchy, but not sticky. (Although, if you do what Elliot is doing below, pieces WILL get stuck in your hair, and watch out, because this stuff can get stuck in carpet and on clothes too if you’re not careful!)

    Elliot Wearing His Slime Putty on His Head

    Elliot Wearing His Slime Putty

  6. Play with your goo! Stretch it, pull it, roll it, and have fun! Store it in a ziploc bag when you are done so that it won’t dry out.
    Elliot Rolling Out Slime Putty with a Rolling Pin

    Elliot Rolling Out Slime Putty

    *Now that you’ve got your Borax out, you might want to whip up a batch of some homemade laundry detergent!

FREE 2016-2017 School Year Calendar Embracing Motherhood

FREE 2016-2017 School Year Calendar

If you’re looking for a “year at a glance” calendar for the 2016-2017 school year that you can display in one location, look no further!

When I was a teacher, I loved printing one of these out for every subject area, and using pens and different colored highlighters to see my year at a glance. This was really helpful for keeping me on track during the year to make sure I covered all of the necessary curriculum.

Now, as a parent with two children about to be in school, I love having this “year at a glance” calendar so that I can keep track of all major upcoming events in one central location.

Download the Year Long Calendar

2016-2017 Year Long Calendar PDF

Unfortunately, I can’t upload the Publisher file where I created it (in case you wanted to edit it), but if you email me, I can send it to you!

Desk Pad Calendar

In addition to having my year at a glance calendar, I also like using this desk pad calendar because it allows me to write down a lot of details, and it’s big enough for the kids to see it and read it. I like hanging mine on the wall right in the kitchen.

I like writing homework assignments, when library books are due, gym days, and any other important school information on this calendar.

In Conclusion

Staying organized on paper is pretty much the only way my brain can function. I love using OneNote for just about everything so that I stay organized on my phone, but there’s nothing like paper accountability that’s visible and right in your face!

The Importance of Learning the ABCs

Learning the ABCs is something so intrinsic to childhood that as adults, we might hardly recognize the importance, but learning the ABCs is more than just singing a song, it’s understanding that each letter has a name, each letter makes a sound, and that these sounds come together to make words. Having a strong understanding of this concept at a young age will make learning how to read seem to happen “as if by chance” (which is how Finnish children typically learn to read).

What Does It Mean to Learn the ABCs?

  1. Letter Names: Learning the names of the 26 letters is pretty basic and straightforward. When children learn what each letter is called, it paves the way for learning the sounds that the letters make.
  2. Letter Sounds: Learning the sounds that the letters make is a bit more complex…probably due to the fact that our 26 letters actually make 44 different sounds. Knowing the different sounds that the letters make is called phonemic awareness.
  3. Letters Come Together to Make Words: Before children start putting letters together to make words, they need to understand that words represent something…a person, action, thing, idea, etc. Then, they learn that the letters “c”, “a”, and “t” can be sounded out as /c/-/a/-/t/ to make the word “cat” and this is the gateway to reading. This is what is known as phonics.
  4. Writing Letters: I often hear of children learning how to write their letters at the same time they are learning letter names and sounds, and I believe that these are two very different skills that should not be taught simultaneously (unless the window for learning has been missed, and there are no other options). Learning how to write letters requires an advanced level of fine motor skills that children do not typically possess until about 4 or 5 years of age, but learning the letter names and sounds is something that can begin as young as 6-8 months of age.

*Check out my Embracing Motherhood Shop to see all of the resources I have made to help you teach your child the ABCs! Also, check out this blog about my favorite additional ABC resources.

How Children Really Learn How to Read

There is a misconception in the United States (and other countries too) that children are not ready to learn how to read until they begin formal schooling. The U.S. Department of Education actually supports the notion that Louisa C. Moats coined in 1999 that,

“Teaching reading is rocket science.”

They go on to explain that,

“Becoming a reader is not a natural process, but requires direct and explicit instruction.”

This type of rhetoric perpetuates the stereotype that only qualified professionals are equipped to teach children such a complicated skill as reading. And while yes, teaching the letter names, sounds, and simple phonics does require a wee bit of direct and explicit instruction, it mostly occurs naturally when a learning environment is created that encourages the teaching of these skills.

If you look at the way they do things over in Finland (which boasts some of the highest reading scores in the world), you’ll see that children there are immersed in reading skills from a very young age and learn how to read “as if by chance”. (Read more about the differences in the U.S. and Finland’s educational system here in my blog: 15 Reasons Why Schools in Finland are Performing Better Than Schools in the United States).

In my blog, How Children Really Learn to Read..in 10 Steps, I explore the true progression that occurs when a child learns how to read based on what I’ve learned during my seven years as an elementary classroom educator and ESL teaching coach, throughout the acquisition of my Master’s degree centered around language acquisition, and from raising our four children who have all learned their ABCs from a very young age and then went on to read “as if by chance”.

Basically, learning how to read is about acquiring a battery of skills that starts at birth. It begins with feeling safe and loved and having all basic needs met, then it progresses into vocabulary development in a language rich environment that includes lots of songs, nursery rhymes, and repetitive reading, after that children need a solid foundation in letter names, sounds, an understanding that words have meaning, and explicit guidance to see how letters come together to form words. It then all culminates with a massive amount of word memorization that occurs almost effortlessly when a love of reading is nurtured and allowed to grow.

Brain Development

In my article, “How Children’s Brains are Wired for Learning“, I explain in depth how children’s brains are wired to learn A LOT from a VERY young age. If you look at graphics like this one and this one that show the number of neurons and synaptic connections in between neurons, you’ll see that there is an EXPLOSION of connections beginning at about 6 months, culminating at an unprecedented height between the ages of 2-3, and then dwindling beginning at the age 4 when synaptic pruning occurs. During this process, the connections that are used become reinforced and the connections that are not used go away.

What does this have to do with the ABCs? When children begin learning about the ABCs at a very young age (like 6-8 months), the brain learns that this is something VERY IMPORTANT, something that needs to be reinforced, and something that will be used to help lay the foundation for all further connections that will be made in the brain.

Understanding the letter names and sounds from a young age is absolutely crucial to being able to sound out new words and add them to the memory bank of words. When this knowledge is solidified at a very young age, it makes learning how to read happen “as if by chance”.

Research Supports Early Learning of the ABCs

In every bit of research I have ever studied about early literacy, there is insurmountable evidence that a strong foundation in phonemic awareness produces amazing results. Take a look at this meta analysis of 71 intervention control groups in studies reporting post test and follow up data looking at the long term effects of phonemic awareness, phonics, fluency, and reading comprehension interventions. What they found is that,

“Comprehension and phonemic awareness interventions showed good maintenance of effect that transferred to nontargeted skills, whereas phonics and fluency interventions…tended not to.”

This reinforces the fact that learning phonemic awareness (the letter sounds) in conjunction with comprehension (so not just isolated phonemic awareness drills, but phonemic awareness in the context of learning say, vocabulary) is extremely important and WAY MORE so than phonics and fluency.

The National Institute of Child Health and Human Development (NICHD) research has studied 10,000 children over the past 15 years and found that the one of the main reasons why children struggle with reading comes down to their inability to do one simple thing, and that is to connect letter names to letter sounds. The research shows that children need to be explicitly taught the letter names, the letter sounds, and how to decode words, and that these are not skills that children will just “figure out” on their own with exposure.

The bottom line is that it is MUCH easier for children to learn things correctly the first time around. According to the research in “Learning to Read: A Call from Research to Action” by G. Reid Lyon, Ph.D 85-90% of all reading disabilities can be corrected if early intervention occurs (like in kindergarten). But unfortunately, many kids don’t become identified as having a reading disability or being behind in reading until they are 9 years old and by then, their brains aren’t as ready to accept new pathways of learning, and only 25% will be able to reach average reading levels with interventions.

The biggest disservice we are doing for children is that we are waiting WAY too long to teach them reading skills in the first place. If we can start to build the foundation for reading as parents when our children are young, then we won’t have to wait until it might be too late.

Observations with My Own Children

When our first daughter was born, being an educator, I naturally had great plans to stimulate her mind and help her grow, but after using portions of Your Baby Can Read and teaching her letter names and letter sounds I have been continuously BLOWN AWAY by all that she can do. When she knew all of her letters at 15 months, I was astounded, when she was reading words (that she memorized) well before the age of 2, I was blown away, and when she was full on able to read at the age of 4. Now, at the ripe old age of 6, she absolutely loves reading chapter books. (See more videos of all of our children learning how to read here.)

With all four of our children, we have taught them the letter names and letter sounds from a very young age (starting at about 8 months). At the same time, we have used repetitive reading and my own videos teaching vocabulary and the concept that words have meaning. After we taught my three older ones (now ages 3, 5, and 6) how to decode simple three letter words and continued reading to them regularly, we noticed that they all started to read (each in their own good time) “as if by chance”.

These observations have fascinated me and motivated me to document their reading progression in these blogs and to create my own “Teach Your Child to Read” program (a work in progress…check it out at my Embracing Motherhood Shop) so that any interested parent can purchase a kit that will replicate the great success I’ve seen with our own children.

In Conclusion

By teaching children the ABCs from a young age, not only will they enjoy it and be entertained by the challenge, but they will move into the next phase of learning how to read with such strength, confidence, and ease without any of the challenges that come from not knowing the letter names, sounds, or how they work together.

How Children Really Learn to Read…in 10 Steps

When should children learn how to read? Do we have to teach children how to read or does it just happen on it’s own? Why do some children struggle with reading? What can I do to help my child learn how to read?

The U.S. Department of Education would have you believe that learning to read is rocket science, which makes it sound extremely complex and like something that should only be left to trained professionals. As a former elementary school educator for seven years with a Master’s degree focused on Linguistics, I almost believed this to be true. But then I had my four children, and after following these 10 steps, I saw them all learn how to read from a very young age, much like the Finnish children do which is “as if by chance”.

So without further adieu, here are the 10 steps that I have found which have led my children to reading.

1. Make Them Feel Safe and Loved

This may sound like a strange first step for learning how to read, but it is the most important aspect of human development. I know that against all odds, there are many who have succeeded even when they have been raised in the most unfortunate of circumstances, but the best environment for a child to thrive is one in which his or her basic needs are all being met and where he or she is shrouded in love.

Ophelia Reading with Great Grandma Gene

Ophelia Reading with Great Grandma Gene

Children who are noticed, children who come first, children who matter, and children who are loved will be able to reach their own personal best in whatever areas they are so inclined to grow.

2. Provide a Language Rich Environment

When adults realize that children are blank little slates who know nothing about the world or the things in it, and then take the time to talk to them and show them all of the little things that they see and interact with, it helps their oral language development to flourish and grow thus providing them with a rich foundation of vocabulary.Add-subtitle-text-3

When little babies sit in the grass across from their parents, rolling a ball back and forth for the first time, they don’t know what a ball is, what it means to roll, to throw, or to catch. They don’t know what colors are or that the little blades poking their legs are called grass…they don’t know that the sound they hear is a bird chirping or that the tall green thing next to them is a tree. They don’t know about clouds, or wind, or sun, or rain…these are all things that they must learn, and the more we talk to them and the more they hear these words repeated over and over and over again, the sooner they’ll learn the names of the things in their little worlds and their worlds will get bigger.

Research shows that a child’s vocabulary is correlated with reading comprehension in upper elementary school and that children who enter school with limited vocabulary knowledge fall further and further behind as compared with students who have rich vocabulary knowledge. Children who enter first grade as linguistically rich will know 20,000 words and children who are linguistically poor will only know 5,000.

When children have a rich vocabulary based on experiences, this is known as background knowledge, and is a key piece of learning how to read.

3. Sing Songs and Nursery Rhymes to Build Vocabulary

Another aspect of language and vocabulary development occurs when children memorize songs and nursery rhymes. As children’s brains are growing, whatever is repeated over and over and over again will strengthen the neural pathways and lay the foundation for further brain development. Neurons that are used will remain; neurons that are not used will die. Starting at about 6 months (see a really cool image here), you’ll notice an explosion of neural connections which will reach its peak when children are between the ages of 2 and 3. By age 4, synaptic pruning begins. You want to lay the foundation BEFORE this happens and what better way to do it than with songs and nursery rhymes.

Not only are songs structured in a way that is predictable and patterned, but singing them is enjoyable and therefore, we do it a lot. It is this repetition that helps us commit what we sing to long term memory. Check out my YouTube playlist of favorite nursery rhymes here. Here’s another playlist of all of my favorite preschool songs and another one just for the ABCs. The standard Mother Goose Nursery rhyme book is good too.

With my children, I love making up songs about everything all the time! I have songs about how much I love them, songs about waking up in the mornings, a song before we go to bed, songs about getting dressed or getting in the van…and they LOVE it! It’s absolutely fascinating to me that our youngest son, who is 20 months and still developing his ability to communicate using complete sentences, yet can sing all of the words to his favorite songs and nursery rhymes.

4. Foster a Relationship with Books

Reading is so much more than just words on a page. It’s a feeling, it’s an expression, and it’s a whole new world that can be discovered just by turning a page. By building a foundation of reading that is based on bonding and love, your child will grow up having positive associations with reading that will motivate him to peruse reading on his own…not just when it’s “reading time”.

Reading with Julian in My Comfy Rocking Chair

Reading with Julian in My Comfy Rocking Chair

This is why I love creating reading routines that are just part of our day. When my babies are little, I have nursing stations set up around the house with my comfy rocking chair and a table nearby for water, burp towels, and anything else I might need. When my babies are ready (usually around 6-8 months), I start keeping little baskets of books nearby too. I love reading before bed, when they wake up in the morning, before naps, or anytime we’re just cuddled up and rocking together.

While this early reading is going on, children are learning about some very important pre-reading skills such as how to hold a book, how we read from left to right, how we turn pages, how books have a beginning and an end, and how words are used to represent pictures on the page. Check out my blogs: How to Engage Your Baby with Reading and Best Books for Babies for more ideas on reading with babies.

Throughout the entire process of learning how to read, this step remains crucial. We need to find the time in our busy lives and in our busy days to read often. We need to build libraries of books, use reading as part of our routines so that it doesn’t get missed, make reading fun, and make reading about snuggling up in the arms of someone you love to explore something new. As your children grow and changes, find out what engages and excites them, and continue to look for new books that they will like.

4. The Most Important Pre-Reading Skills

Instead of listing these separately, I wanted to lump them together to emphasize that they are best taught simultaneously, but each one is of vital importance. In fact, without these skills, children will struggle as readers for their whole lives, but with a solid foundation in them, they will learn to read from a young age “as if by chance”. When my children are about 6-8 months old, I have found that this is the optimum time to start teaching them these skills.

Ophelia (2) and Her Fridge ABCs

Ophelia (2) and Her Fridge ABCs

  • Words Have Meaning: Before children start learning about the alphabet, they need to know what the alphabet is used for, and they need to see that words have meaning. I learned about this valuable skill when our first born daughter was 6 months old and we started watching Your Baby Can Read videos together. It took awhile for her to master the first batch of words, and she didn’t really start articulating her understanding of them until about 12 months of age, but once she did, her word memorization skills cascaded like a waterfall. (The Your Baby Can Read program did have it’s flaws, and has since gone out of business. This has inspired me to create my own reading system called “Teach Your Child to Read” which is coming soon…check out the progress at my Embracing Motherhood Shop!) I have also loved using books like this – Hinkler First Words to teach my babies that words represent things.
  • Letter Names: Teaching letter names is where it all begins. Learning uppercase letters is in some ways easier because they are more distinct and easier to differentiate, but children will encounter the lowercase letters more often, and so I like to teach them simultaneously. In the English language, we have 26 letter names that children must learn, which is a pretty straightforward process that simply requires repeated exposure and rote memorization.
  • Letter Sounds: Learning the letter sounds is a bit more tricky because while we may only have 26 letters, they make up 44 different sounds. Being able to understand and recognize the different sounds in a language is called phonemic awareness. (So it’s really more auditory than visual.) When children are learning their letter sounds, I have found that it’s best to work in layers. First teach the consonants (using the hard c and g) and short vowels. After these are mastered, you can start getting into more complex letter sounds such as long vowels (and all of the different ways they are represented…starting with the most basic), digraphs (two letters that come together to make a single sound like the /ph/ sound in “phone”) and dipthongs (vowel combinations where neither vowel sound is heard such as in the words “coin” and “moon”).

5. Decoding Three Letter Words

Learning how to decode three letter words is where the true act of reading begins. When children can look at the word “cat” and are able to isolate the individual sounds that each of the letters make, “/c/-/a/-/t/” and then blend those sounds together, “c-a-t”, to make the word “cat” this is what is known as phonics.

Ophelia and Elliot Spell Words

Ophelia and Elliot Spell Words

Children are ready to embark on the journey of learning three letter words once they have completely mastered their letter names and letter sounds. If you push them into decoding too soon, they will get frustrated, lose confidence, and possibly hate reading forever. Okay, maybe it won’t be that severe, but it’s much much better and way more effective to wait until they are ready.

One of my favorite tools for teaching three letter words is Starfall’s Word Machines. (Watch a little video of us using it here.) This is a really fun and cute way for children to become familiar with decoding three letter words. After that, I love using a muffin tin like this and some foam letters like these to teach word families. It’s best to first start with three letter words before branching out to words with four letters or more. Read more about this process in my blog: Using Magnet Letters to Teach the ABCs.

I wouldn’t have realized that this step was so important unless I had seen it with my own eyes with all of my children. It’s like once they figure out this step, the floodgates open and they start reading more and more words at an increasingly rapid rate.

6. Memorizing Words with Repeated Reading

Once a children have sounded out the word “c-a-t” many many times, they eventually will just know that this is the word “cat”, and they won’t have to sound it out anymore. Children can also just memorize words that they encounter often without ever learning how to sound them out at all.daddy reading with elliot

The more children are read to and the more that they “read”, the more they will be exposed to words over and over and over again which will help commit them to long term memory. Going back to the brain development I discussed in the songs and nursery rhymes session, it is this repeated reading that will help children commit words to their long term memory.

When you think about how you read as an adult, especially when you encounter a slightly challenging text like a college textbook, think about how you read, and in particular, notice how you read when you come to a word you don’t know. Many times, we simply see the beginning and ending letters of a word and this leads to recognition, that’s why we can still read and make sense of a paragraph like this. Other times, we will rely on a plethora of other skills (not just decoding) to figure out a new word such as our background knowledge, context clues, and looking at the structure of the word (i.e. root words, syllables, etc.).

In the primary grades, there is a HUGE emphasis on teaching phonics, as if learning every single rule of the English language is the true key to learning how to read, but the reality with all of these phonics lessons is that while they are really good for helping children learn how to spell, they are not a crucial component of learning how to read. In fact, a meta-analysis of 71 intervention control groups looked at the long term effects of phonemic awareness, phonics, fluency, and reading comprehension interventions and found that phonemic awareness and comprehension interventions made a difference whereas phonics and fluency interventions did not.

As a teacher, but mostly as a parent, I have been enlightened as to what learning truly is and is not.

Learning isn’t about memorizing a series of facts and rules. Learning is about creating meaning. True long term learning occurs when something is so entertaining, so engaging, and so useful, that the repetition needed to commit it to long term memory seems effortless.

7. The Different Stages of Reading

There is a progression of reading that children will go through at different ages based on a variety of factors. You might just notice your children are going through each of these stages on their own, or you might see that they need a little nudge and some guidance in getting to the next stage.

  • Picture Reading: This is basically where children flip through the pages of the book and just talk about whatever is seen in the pictures. You can read to your children this way to teach them what picture reading is like or you might just observe them doing it. This was something our daughter Ophelia would do on her own starting at about a year and a half. After watching Dora programs, she LOVED all of the Dora books and would flip through all of the pages saying words that she knew. With our son Elliot, who wasn’t quite as interested in books, I would encourage him to read picture books like this and this and this because he was ready to “read”, but not quite ready to tackle the words on the page.
  • Repeated Reading: When you read books over and over and over with your children, especially really good interactive books where they can lift the flaps and such, you’ll probably fall into some patterns based on what entertains them. For example, if there’s an animal, you might ask what the animal says, or if there’s a rhyming word, you might pause to let them fill in the blank. By having these predictable routines, your child will love anticipating his or her participation.
  • Reading Single Word Books: This is an excellent way for children to memorize words that will help them read while letting them practice their reading skills. Sometimes, word books can get very busy making you think you’re getting a better value because in 10 pages, they cover 100 words, but trust me, less is more. I absolutely love the simplicity of these Hinkler First Word books and how they keep it simple with just one picture and one word per page.
  • Reading Sentences: Once children are out of the baby stage and have a good foundation of basic reading skills, they will love reading books with simple sentences. Gone are the Dick and Jane books of the past, today’s easy readers are Mo Williams books! One of our favorites is this, but we try to buy as many as we can because every single one is pure gold.
  • Reading Books of Interest: Teach your children how to find books that they like at the library and even on Amazon. Organize your books at home using bookshelves and baskets of books so that your children can easily find new books that peak their interest. They might choose books that are too hard and just look at the pictures, they may select all of the baby books they enjoyed reading over and over with you from long ago, or they might discover a new genre that they can read on their own.
  • Reading to Comprehend: There are a variety of comprehension strategies that you can engage your children with as they become more accomplished readers, and I explain these more in detail in my blog: How to Teach Reading Comprehension. One of the best ways to help your children with their comprehension skills is simply to talk about the books they are reading. You might want to read the same book as they are or read together so you know what the story is about, but sometimes it’s fun when you don’t know what the book is about and they have to tell you as much as they can.

8. Let Children Progress At Their Own Rate

As I created my “Teach Your Child to Read” program (coming soon…check out the progress at my Embracing Motherhood Shop!), I debated calling it “Teach Your Baby to Read” because I have seen that it is totally possible, but at the same time, I have learned that it is not always probable.

By going through this progression, three out of four of our children have become very early readers (before the age of two), but one of our children only started reading recently at the age of 5. Now, this may be due to the fact that we skipped the memorizing words stage with him (due to the fact that we were in the middle of a huge life transition at the time…see my blog: How I Became a Stay at Home Mom) or it could just be that due to his personality, he wasn’t interested in learning until now.

At any rate, I believe strongly in letting each of our children develop at their own rate and according to their individual interests. My strongest teaching philosophy is rooted in the zone of proximal development that encourages teachers to continuously provide students with learning opportunities that are not too challenging, but just challenging enough, and then providing scaffolding as they learn the new idea or skill until they can do it on their own. In this manner, I am always creating learning goals for all of my children that helps me to meet them right where they are.

Learning how to read is not a race, and nobody is going to give you an award for being the best parent just because your child reads at a young age. BUT, when you place these pre-reading tools in front of an eager learner, and they POUNCE on them, it seems almost cruel to think our society would have us wait until they are in school to begin reading.

9. Encourage Your Child to Ask for Help

This is a reading comprehension strategy known in the teaching world as “Monitor and Clarify” meaning that good readers know how to monitor their reading to make sure that they are understanding what is being read and working to clarify anything that they don’t understand.

When I was a teacher, I designed many lessons to teach this concept, but it wasn’t until I read with my children, side by side, every day, that I truly grasped the importance and the organic nature of this process. Every night as part of our bedtime routine, I read with our oldest daughter Ruby (currently 6). She has a HUGE stack of chapter books she keeps in her bed next to her little nightlight, and every night we cuddle up and she reads to me for 10-20 minutes any book of her choosing. As she reads aloud to me, she’ll pause at a word that she doesn’t understand to say, “What does this word mean Mom?” I never taught her how to “Monitor and Clarify”, and yet somehow she just does it.

Ruby Reading in Bed

Ruby Reading in Bed

How? Well, when she asks me a question, I answer it. I don’t put it back on her and say, “What do you think it means?” or “Let’s look at the context clues to figure this out.” Yuck. No thanks. When Ruby asks me the meaning of a word, I simply tell her, and we move on. When she struggles to correctly pronounce a word, I quickly read it for her, and she doesn’t skip a beat. There is this misconception that we need to let our children struggle in order to learn, and I disagree. What typically happens after I tell her the meaning of a word is that she knows what that word means and she applies that knowledge the next time she encounters the word or phrase in question. If she somehow can’t remember and asks for help again, I’ll simply tell her again…just like that.

10. Become a Family Who Reads

Both my husband and I love reading. Our children know this, our children see this, and they know we are a family of readers. Our house is FULL of books, and we have bookshelves and baskets of books in every room. We read books every night before we go to bed, we cuddle up and read throughout the day, we listen to books on tape, we go to the library and get as many books as they’ll let us check out, we pay regular library fines for late books, and we don’t even mind, we have book wishlists on Amazon for ourselves and for every child, and we buy books to add to our library for birthdays, Christmas, from the tooth fairy, and anytime there’s a really good book that we just have to have.

When you become a family of readers, your children will become readers. When you teach your children not only how to read, but how to access books (from your home library, from the public library, and from Amazon), they will become masters of their own destiny. Instead of going to you like an empty vessel waiting to be filled, they can fill their own tanks with whatever knowledge they desire. Here’s what I mean…

When we found out we were pregnant for baby #5, our daughter Ruby went straight to our Basher Books collection (an EXCELLENT source for teaching young children higher level concepts…we have purchased just about every single one), and read the book about the human body. She came to me later and said,

“Mom, did you know it’s really up to dad if our baby becomes a boy or girl because he’s the one who carries the x or the y chromosome?”

And that’s what I’m talking about folks! This is what reading is all about. It’s not about reading early or getting high grades, and it’s not about becoming proficient or advanced or reading the right number of words a minute. Reading is about unlocking the world around you, discovering new things, exploring new ideas, getting lost in another world, and having access to all of the knowledge that the world has to offer.

In Conclusion

Learning how to read is not rocket science, it is not something that should wait until formal schooling to be learned, and it does not need to be taught by a trained professional. In fact, very little “teaching” is actually needed in order to lead children to reading. What is needed is an environment conducive to reading, deliberate exposure to word recognition, letter names, and letter sounds, guidance in discovering the structure

By creating an environment conducive to reading and by building a foundation of some key basic skills, children can learn to read “as if by chance” and in the process unlock an entire world that is just resting at their fingertips. Check out the teaching tools I have created to help children learn how to read at my Embracing Motherhood Shop!

Happy reading!

Videos of Our Kids Reading

  • Reading with Julian 18 months. Notice how much he interacts with the books I am reading. These are some of his favorites that we read all the time.
  • Ophelia reading at 2.5. Ophelia started reading from a VERY young age, and it really blew our minds!
  • Elliot reading some Mo Williams at age 5. Elliot started reading on his own fairly recently, and he is so proud! He has a nightlight by his bed, and we hear him over his monitor reading to himself every night.
  • Ruby reads The Princess in Black at age 6. Ruby start reading at a VERY young age like Ophelia and absolutely LOVES reading!
  • Here’s a playlist of our kids learning how to read over the years. *Showing children videos of other kids reading can be a great way to get them motivated to read!
15 Reasons Why Finland's Schools Are Performing Better Than Schools in the United States at Embracing Motherhood

15 Reasons Why Finland’s Schools Are Performing Better Than Schools in the United States

Unless you’re really interested in education, you might not be aware of what’s going on in Finland’s schools. If you are, you may have read a few click bait articles about more recess, delayed kindergarten, and play based learning, but the whole story is much more interesting…and complex.

In this article, I hope to shed some light on why Finland has become such a buzzword for educational experts, how they got to be where they are, and all of the parts that make up the whole of their successful educational system. Throughout this article, I will compare what is working in Finland to what is currently being done in the United States to help paint a complete picture.

PISA Results

Let’s begin with the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) that put Finland on the map (as an educational buzzword that is) in the first place. PISA in an international test given every three years to 15 year olds in the areas of reading, math, and science with the 65 countries that have chosen to participate.

Below, I have listed the most recent scores (from 2012) from Finland and the United States in the three categories that the test covers. Below that, you will find their overall ranks listed with all of the other countries who participated. *Also note that Finland was ranked 1st in reading, 4th in math, and 3rd in science in 2000, 1st in reading and science and 2nd in math in 2003, 1st in reading and 2nd in math and science in 2006, and 1st in reading, 6th in math, and 2nd in science in 2009.

Finland

  • Reading – 6th
  • Science – 5th
  • Math – 12th

United States

  • Reading – 24th
  • Science – 28th
  • Math – 36th

2012 PISA Results

  1. Shanghai-China
  2. Singapore
  3. Hong Kong-China
  4. Taiwan
  5. Korea
  6. Macau-China
  7. Japan
  8. Liechtenstein
  9. Switzerland
  10. Netherlands
  11. Estonia
  12. Finland – 12th
  13. Canada
  14. Poland
  15. Belgium
  16. Germany
  17. Vietnam
  18. Austria
  19. Australia
  20. Ireland
  21. Slovenia
  22. New Zealand
  23. Denmark
  24. Czech Republic
  25. France
  26. UK
  27. Iceland
  28. Latvia
  29. Luxembourg
  30. Norway
  31. Portugal
  32.  Italy
  33. Spain
  34. Russia
  35. Slovakia
  36. US – 36th
  37. Lithuania
  38. Sweden
  39. Hungary
  40. Croatia
  41. Israel
  42. Greece
  43. Serbia
  44. Turkey
  45. Romania
  46. Cyprus
  47. Bulgaria
  48. UAE
  49. Kazakhstan
  50. Thiland
  51. Chile
  52. Malaysia
  53. Mexico
  54. Montenegro
  55. Uruguay
  56. Costa Rica
  57. Albania
  58. Brazil
  59. Argentina
  60. Tunisia
  61. Jordan
  62. Colombia
  63. Qatar
  64. Indonesia
  65. Peru

Since PISA began in 2000, Finland has held 1st place for reading year after year after year (which is why it initially gained such notoriety). The 2012 testing year saw Finland fall in rank from it’s usual top spots; read the theories about why that happened here. One of the theories is that countries like China, who are now showing up in the highest positions, emphasize rigorously preparing for tests via rote memorization which leaves children lacking in social and practical skills, self-discipline and imagination, and curiosity and passion for learning (source). Another theory is that Finland has been so preoccupied with being in a fishbowl while everyone analyzed what made them so great instead of focusing on their continuous progression. Always room for improvement, right?

1. Finland’s Reform

It is important to note that the educational system in Finland hasn’t always produced such pleasing results. In his article in the New Republic, “The Children Must Play“, Samuel E. Abrams, a visiting scholar at Teachers College, explains how Finland turned it’s educational system around in the 1970s.

“Finland’s schools weren’t always so successful. In the 1960s, they were middling at best. In 1971, a government commission concluded that, poor as the nation was in natural resources, it had to modernize its economy and could only do so by first improving its schools. To that end, the government agreed to reduce class size, boost teacher pay, and require that, by 1979, all teachers complete a rigorous master’s program.”

By recognizing the need for change and taking radical steps to do so, Finland is now performing near the top of the list. They faced a lot of scrutiny about their methods until the PISA test results came out in 2000, and now everyone is trying to figure out what makes Finland’s schools so successful.

In the rest of this article, I’ll focus on the hallmarks that have contributed to Finland’s successful educational system with a brief comparison to the educational system in the United States. Please keep in mind that it is all of these components working together that contribute to Finland’s success.

2. Being a Welfare State

As one of the world’s best functioning welfare states, Finland takes care of all of its citizens equally. With a poverty rate of just 5.3%, you won’t find huge disparities between the rich and the poor. Even if you grew up in poverty here, however, you would still get the same resources including high quality education as someone who grew up with more privileges.

Some people say that Finnish people are paid like doctors, but it’s not because teachers get paid more, it’s that doctors get paid less. In Finland, the amount of money you pay for a speeding ticket is all relative to your income. One millionaire was fined the equivalent of $103,000 for going 40 mph in a 35 mph. In Finland, the playing field is made as level as can be.

United States: In the United States, there is not the same sort of equality. The poverty rate in the U.S is 15%, but it’s even higher for children at 21%. That means that there are 15.5 million children, or roughly 1 in 5, that live in poverty. (Check out this poverty map to see the huge variance of poverty statistics from state to state.) In the United States, there is a huge disparity between the rich and the poor, and if you grow up in poverty, you will NOT be afforded the same opportunities as those who grow up with more privileges. In fact, the United States is the ONLY nation in the world where the quality of public education is based on local wealth

So, in the end, Finland’s economy promotes social harmony, but the competitive nature of America’s economy has fueled many innovations…but at what price?

3. A Culture of Literacy and Learning

Finland is a country that prides itself on their love of learning and literacy. Check out this great PowerPoint created by the Finnish National Board of Education that explains what they do as a society (not just as an educational system) to create successful students.

One way that Finnish society supports literacy is by having one of the world’s best library systems. They are constantly getting new books and there is a high check out rate. Most homes subscribe to at least one newspaper, and the typical Finnish family starts the day at breakfast reading the morning paper and commenting on the day’s news.

About half of all Finnish TV is broadcast in a foreign language (mostly English) using Finnish subtitles (rather than dubbing). So when children are watching foreign TV, they need to read everything in Finnish! Bedtime stories are also a very important ritual.

United States: What are the priorities of the United States as a whole? This was kind of a hard one to sum up because the United States is so much bigger than Finland, but I think that this guide to living in America for foreigners gives a very revealing portrayal of what foreigners should expect when trying to fit into “American culture”. First of all, it explains that Americans are individualistic and time oriented as well as friendly and direct. It goes on to say that Americans love their sports, love their hobbies, and are fastidious about their appearance. It also warns of the prejudices and racism found mainly in small towns and in the south often expressed in off color humor where the presenter maybe doesn’t realize that they are sounding racist. 

In my opinion, I feel that there is this pervasive (yet erroneous) notion of the “American Dream” fostered by stories such as Abraham Lincoln living in a log cabin and rising to become president just because he worked hard enough when the reality is best expressed in the story of “The Death of a Salesman”  which gives a much more realistic (and grim) portrayal of this ideal. The majority of American culture that I have encountered (throughout my brief exposure to the entirety of the United States) can be summed up by our stereotype of nerds. They are often portrayed in sitcoms, movies, and life as being very smart yet socially awkward, not into fashion, not invited to parties, and thus a less desirable position to be in. Then you have those who slough of school, who don’t need to work hard, and who have all the friends and popularity portrayed as the ultimate achievement leading to true happiness. The fact that the notion of “nerds being unpopular” even exists reveals that our true opinions are of learning and literacy are that it is more important to look cool than to be smart and that the two don’t typically mix.

4. Teacher Training

I think that one of the most important things that Finland did to reform education was to create highly qualified teachers. They did this by not just requiring all teachers to get a Master’s degree, but by paying for it as well. Not only is college in Finland free, but when teachers are enrolled in the graduate level teacher’s program for three years, they get a stipend for living expenses so that they don’t go into debt while they’re going to school.

Getting into this graduate level program is tough with only 10-15% of applicants being accepted, so the teacher education program is truly getting the top of the pool. Being a teacher in Finland is considered a highly prestigious position because the entire Finnish culture supports learning.

United States: In the United States, most states require teachers to have a bachelor’s degree and a teaching certificate, but because of teacher shortages, there are many alternative routes to becoming a teacher and private schools do not often require teaching certificates at all. Also, there is no free college here. You may get some financial aid for a bachelor’s degree, but the average debt of a Master’s level degree in education is $50,000.

5. Taken Care of From Birth

One of the hallmark’s of Finland’s success is how they take care of their mothers and children. All working mothers are provided a 4 month paid maternity leave in addition to a free Finnish baby box (or cash value) that includes everything needed for a newborn. Then, either the mother or father can take a paid parental leave until the baby is 9 months old. This benefit is extended to adoptive parents as well.

If a parent chooses to stay home with their child until he/she is 3, they will get a Child Care Allowance in the equivalence of $385/mo. Approximately 50% of all mothers take full advantage of this. *This is in addition to the $107/mo. Child Benefit package that is given until the child reaches 17.

United States: The United States is pretty much the only country that doesn’t provide maternity leave for mothers…or fathers, except for assuring twelve weeks of unpaid paternity leave without losing their job. The Child Tax Credit does take approximately $1,000 off your tax bill per child, a recent increase which is actually pretty cool. 

6. Early Childhood Education (Day Care)

When parents in Finland choose work and send their children to day care, it is not at all considered to be a babysitting service. There are National Curriculum Guidelines that discuss such things as the child’s well-being as the target, the role of the educator, the joy of learning, the role of language, how young children learn through play, parental engagement, and content orientations in the areas of mathematics, nature, science, history, aesthetics, religion, ethics, religion, and philosophy. This is because day cares fall under the jurisdiction of the Ministry of Education. In addition, most teaching and guidance staff in day cares hold a bachelor’s degree.

About 80% of mothers with their youngest child between the ages of 3-6 are working and most take advantage of the municipal day care system which is heavily subsidized based on family size and income. There is also a private day care allowance if that is the route parents choose.

United States: In the United States, it is a completely different story. First of all, there is no unifying system for day cares, no guiding curriculum that focuses on the “whole child” or any sort of educational or enrichment standards whatsoever, and the Department of Education is not involved in any way shape, or form. Instead, day cares are overseen by the Licensing and Regulatory Affairs that merely provides a massive checklist of possible health and safety violations. (Check out this example from Michigan.) Even though every state is slightly different, most day cares require only a high school diploma for employment. 

A 2007 survey by the National Institute of Child Health Development found that the majority of day care facilities were either “fair” or “poor”, and only 10% were found to provide high quality care. The recommendation is that there is one caregiver for every three infants between the ages of 6-18 months, but only one-third of settings meet that standard. Horror stories like these are way too common in day cares across the United States.

The overall statistic says that 61% of all children ages 3-6 are in some sort of center-based care. The reality is that for poor families, this looks more like 45%, and for wealthier families, it looks more like 72%. And even though the government subsidizes up to $3,000 per family for daycare (regardless of income), this only covers a fraction of the costs which can be upwards of $15,000/year.

7. Pre-Primary Education (Pre-School and Kindergarten)

While kindergarten may not start until children are 7, mandatory preschool starts when children are 6. Before this became mandatory in 2015, 97% of children were already attending preschool.

Just like with the day cares, the preschools are governed by the Ministry of Education and use a very holistic pre-primary curriculum (used for preschool and kindergarten) that focuses on the development of the whole child. This document discusses the purpose of pre-primary education, general objectives of education and learning, the concept of learning, what constitutes a good learning environment, and more. And while yes, they do include paragraphs detailing the big ideas for language and interaction as well as mathematics, they also have sections explaining the instruction of ethics and religion, environmental and natural studies, health, physical and motor development, arts and culture, and more. It is a very well rounded curriculum guideline.

United States: In the United States, preschool starts at the age of 3 or 4, and it is not mandatory. A 2015 report by the Department of Education called A Matter of Equity: Preschool in America, explains how only 41% of 4 year olds attend preschool and that there are racial and socioeconomic disparities that prevent access to high quality preschool programs for all children. It also explains how we know that the preschool education provided is abysmal and that steps are being taken to correct that…but are they the right steps?

Grants were recently given to 20 states to design better plans for teaching young children, and states like Missouri did a nice job of creating Early Learning Standards, but the problem is that the focus is just too narrow and too specific. Instead of presenting a narrative that gives the big idea while still allowing for teacher and student autonomy and flexibility, everything is broken up into core subjects and then extremely specific descriptors are given for every possible skill that anyone could ever imagine covering. The document is so large and overbearing that there is no way someone could teach all of this without carrying around a little guidebook telling them what to say and do every step of the way.

8. A Curriculum That Focuses on the Whole Child

Here are the Finnish standards for the basic education, which covers grades 1st – 9th. Like with pre-primary education, they focus on the whole child and cover a wide variety of topics that extend far beyond just what is measured on standardized tests. While art, music, and PE are being cut for budgetary reasons in the U.S., Finland still finds time to teach crafts, home economics, foreign languages, health, religion, ethics, music, visual arts, physical education, and more. This focus on the whole child is one of the hallmarks that makes their educational system not just work, but thrive.

The Center on International Education Benchmarking, an organization dedicated to learning from the world’s high performing education systems explains how,

“Finnish classrooms emphasize the importance of learning through doing, and place particular emphasis on group work, creativity and problem-solving skills. From primary school onward, students are expected to work collaboratively on interdisciplinary projects. In many cases, students are expected to contribute to the design of these projects as well. In upper secondary school, students are expected to contribute to the design of their course of study.”

They also describe how,

“In the early years of school, Finnish students often stay together in a class with the same teacher for several years. That way, the teacher can follow their development over several grade levels, and they are able to learn in what many consider to be a family-like environment.”

United States: In the United States, we have federally created Common Core Standards that most states have adopted and then adapted for their own personal use. Since I live in Michigan, here are Michigan’s standards. I encourage you to at least browse through their categories. You’ll notice an emphasis on core subjects with standards that give very specific examples for how each grade level should progress through each standard. Check out these English Language Arts Standards for K and 1st grade to see exactly what I mean.

There is this sense in the United States that we have to teach skills to mastery and that it is facts and skills that will lead to knowledge and success, but Finland has touched on something that I have found to be highly successful in my own teaching experience both in the classroom and with my own children, and in my opinion, it is this:

Children are not empty vessels to be filled. They are curious, inquisitive, and imaginative beings that only need to be given the tools to reach their given potential. Our role as teacher should be to guide them towards their interests, to provide them with the skills and resources necessary to take their learning to the next level, and to be an audience as they share their discoveries.

If we can do this, our children will reach greater heights than anything we could ever design for them.

9. How Finnish Children Learn to Read

There is a misconception that because Finnish children don’t start going to compulsory school (kindergarten) until they are 7, they don’t start learning how to read until then, but that is simply not true.

Because the National Ministry in Finland is in charge of the day cares and preschools, it designs a curriculum that supports the literacy growth through all developmental phases. In day care, children are engaged in play based learning that prepares them for preschool. In preschool, they teach phonological awareness and vocabulary through a variety of genres and types of literature.

And this is why the Finnish National Board of Education states that,

“half of the pre-school pupils learn to read as if by chance.”

There is also a lot of support for struggling students. 37% of first-graders get some kind of additional support, but the students who struggle rarely do so because of a lack of basic skills. (i.e. Students enter school with a strong foundation in basic skills.) Early intervention is strongly emphasized, and all teachers have knowledge and expertise on learning difficulties. The cooperation between parents, teachers, and other experts is intense and is a HUGE part of student achievement.

Finally, Finnish is actually one of the easiest languages to learn how to read. The Finnish alphabet is similar to the English alphabet but with only 21 letters (that are used anyways) and no weird exceptions (like the hard and soft g and c and diagraphs). In addition, every Finnish word is pronounced exactly as it’s written, and there are simple rules for everything with very few exceptions. This makes it very easy for children how to read “as if by chance” and explains why the vast majority of Finnish students enter school with strong reading skills.

United States: Children in the United States are taught to read according to the five components of reading.

  1. Phonemic Awareness: Letter sounds
  2. Phonics: The relationship between letter names, sounds, and how they work together
  3. Fluency: Reading with accuracy, speed, and expression
  4. Vocabulary: The meaning of words
  5. Comprehension: Understanding what is being read

The instruction is systemic (meaning that it is carried out by the entire system), and systematic (meaning that it is carried out in a step by step process).

When it come to reading, the U.S. Department of Education supports the notion that, 

“Becoming a reader is not a natural process, but requires direct and explicit instruction.”

Remember how in Finland kids were learning to read “as if by chance”? Well, not so in the U.S. Here, students must patiently wait until their empty little brains are filled with all of the facts and skills that teachers can cram in there.

And how well is this working? Not so well. According to the most recent 2015 national reading test as reported by the NAEP (National Assessment of Education Progress) otherwise known as the “Nation’s Report Card”, only 36% of 4th graders and 38% of 8th graders were proficient in reading. Yikes!

10. No Standardized Testing

One of the biggest hallmarks of Finland’s educational system is that they have no standardized testing whatsoever. The only test they are required to take is when they graduate high school if they wish to go on to a university. Samuel E. Abrams explains how,

“While nations around the world introduced heavy standardized testing regimes in the 1990s, the Finnish National Board of Education concluded that such tests would consume too much instructional time, cost too much to construct, proctor, and grade, and generate undue stress.”

United States: In the United States, we spend $1.7 billion on standardized testing every year. In her article in Education Week, “Why Bipartisanism Isn’t Working for Educational Reform“, Ann Stuart Wells, a professor at Teachers College points out that since NCLB, we now spend five to six times more funds on testing with 90% of this going to private testing companies. In this environment, teachers can’t help but feel inundated with testing that seems to drive every aspect of their teaching day. Even Obama says that he regrets “taking the joy out of teaching and learning with too much testing”. 

11. Teacher (and Student) Freedom and Autonomy

Not only are all teachers in Finland highly qualified, they are trusted to do what is best for their students. Samuel E. Abrams explains how,

“Teachers in Finland design their own courses, using a national curriculum as a guide, not a blueprint, and spend about 80 percent as much time leading classes as their U.S. counterparts do, so that they have sufficient opportunity to plan lessons and collaborate with colleagues.”

In his article, “Inside of a Finnish Classroom“, Tim Walker, an American teacher teaching in Finland shares his observations of what Finnish classrooms look like.

“In Finland, it’s common to find classrooms that are very different from each other. This makes sense given that a teacher’s individuality is deeply respected.”

He goes on to explain the slow pace of the classroom where the teacher is calm instead of, “anxiously pacing around the classroom, checking in on everyone”, which is so often the mood in the U.S. schools, especially during testing time. Teachers also dress casually, are called by their first names, and students don’t even have to wear shoes.

Check out this video of a teacher in a Finnish school where you’ll notice her calm demeanor, the freedom and autonomy that the children have, the lack of discipline problems, the way that the students are engaged and on task, and the way that each child is given time and attention. At no time does it feel like a script is being followed.

United States: Check out this video of a teacher in the United States teaching literacy. This is pretty much the exact same thing you will see in just about every primary literacy lesson because teachers in the United States must follow a very scripted method of teaching which leaves little room for freedom and autonomy for teachers or students. The teacher is typically either addressing the entire class as a group or working with small ability groups.

12. Less Time in School

In Finland, school starts between 8 and 9 am and ends between 1 and 2 pm. During this 5 hour school day (7-8 year olds attend half days), there is lunch (hot lunches are provided free for every student) with a 75 minute long recess and 15 minute breaks every hour where kids must go outside to play. Their playgrounds are also elaborately designed (sometimes with the help of the children) in ways that encourage lots of movement as well as creative and imaginative play.

In his article published in Education Week, “Classroom Shock: What I Am Learning as a Teacher in Finland“, Tim Walker explains how not only are the kids getting a break every hour, but the teachers are as well. During their 15 minute breaks, teachers are encouraged to catch up with their colleagues while drinking coffee in the teacher’s lounge rather than frantically trying to prepare for the next lesson.

Finnish teachers work on average 570 hours a year, nearly half of the 1,100 hours that U.S. teachers do. In addition, they also have little to no homework.

United States: Students in the U.S. spend about 7 hours a day at school with a 30 minute lunch recess and maybe a 15 minute morning recess for the younger grades. 

13. Smaller Class Sizes

In 1985, when authorities in Finland postponed tracking from 7th to 10th grade (meaning the separation of students based on ability), they knew that they would need to make class sizes smaller to accommodate these heterogeneous groups. Now, the average class size in 1st and 2nd grade is 19 students and in grades 3 through 9, it is 21 students.

United States: It’s very hard to find reliable data about class sizes in the United States because we are governed by a 16:1 student to teacher ratio, meaning that specialist teachers from speech therapists to music teachers who might not be in the room every day count towards this ratio leaving some classrooms to balloon to 30+ students. We saw this in our daughter’s kindergarten class before we switched schools.

14. Play Based Learning

Finland encourages play based learning as the foundation of day care, preschool, and kindergarten.

In an article published in the Atlantic by Finland education blogger Tim Walker, he explains how kindergarten students only engage in desk work, like handwriting, once a week. He goes on to explain what he noticed while observing classrooms:

“Instead of a daily itinerary, two of them [teachers] showed me a weekly schedule with no more than several major activities per day: Mondays, for example, are dedicated to field trips, ballgames, and running, while Fridays—the day I visited—are for songs and stations.”

During his observations, he noticed kids singing songs and chants, attending stations such as fort-making with bed sheets, arts and crafts, and running a pretend ice cream shop.

United States: In select preschools in the U.S. there is a remarkable programs being used Tools of the Mind that uses play based Vygotsky-inspired learning that encourages creative and imaginative play, but this is the exception, not the rule.

15. Cooperation not Competition

In his article, “The Finnish Miracle“, published in Great Kids!, Hand Pellissier, a freelance writer on education and brain development, explains how,

“Americans give lip service to the notion that ‘all men are created equal’, but our appetite for competition creates an intense focus on ranking low and high performers — whether they’re schools or students.”

Without standardized testing in Finland, schools aren’t ranked against each other, teachers aren’t evaluated primarily by the test scores of their students, and the curriculum isn’t organized around these tests. This creates an environment without the pressure to “perform” on one single measure of assessment, but to allow for more open ended model of learning.

Students aren’t ability grouped, and the advanced students work alongside the struggling ones. There isn’t a sense of one group looking down on another, they realize that they all have different strengths and weaknesses, and they work together to help each other out.

There are also no private schools, no schools of choice, and no sense that the best students are being skimmed off the top. Also, most schools don’t even provide organized sports.

In Conclusion

Since their reform in the 1970s, Finland has turned around a stagnant economy by focusing on the improvement of their educational system. As a result, they have a thriving economy and one of the world’s most respected educational systems. They didn’t do this by just having children start kindergarten at a later age or providing more recess time (which are the two big buzz topics that always get all of the attention), they did it by focusing on the entire infrastructure of education from the ground up…from funding, to training, to best practices, to seeing results.

In the end, what makes Finland work is a mindset. They love learning, they enjoy it, they see each child as an individual, not a test score, and they provide an open ended method of instruction that leaves the sky as the limit. By adopting this mindset within our families, within our homes, and within our communities, maybe that can be the first step in a long journey of educational improvement in the United States…and around the world.

Check out my Embracing Motherhood Shop where I am working on creating a system that teaches children how to read!

To Learn More:

In my article, I have provided links where appropriate to all of my sources. These links below are either resources that I didn’t link to in the article or that I thought provided a very thorough and complete look at this topic.