I believe that the most successful learning takes place when an environment is prepared with such careful thought that when a child enters that environment, he automatically begins to absorb concepts without anyone instructing him and without even realizing that he’s learning. This kind of learning environment is perfect for any child but most of all for the very young.
Some specific elements work well to create a natural learning experience for little tots, a learning experience that is not only effective but is fun and easy for you as the teacher!
Song. If you want your little tot to learn a specific procedure (very important), put it to music. When I was little we used to sing “This is the way we wash our hands, wash our hands, wash our hands. This is the way we wash our hands so early in the morning.” You can replace “wash our hands” with whatever you are teaching at the moment. If you encourage the child to mimic what you are doing while you sing, you will be modeling for her how you do the particular job, and she will be practicing the skill as you sing.
Here are some tasks toddlers can do with you: “This is the way we stack our books.” “This is the way we make our bed.” “This is the way we pick up our shoes.” “This is the way we comb our hair.” “This is the way we dust the shelf.” “This is the way we pick up our blocks.” “This is the way we put on socks.” “This is the way we zip our coat.” “This is the way we feed the cat.” The list could go on forever.
Visuals. We’ve all heard that a picture is worth 1,000 words and wow is that true! A visual can convey so much in the time it takes a child to take a look. Pictures and images make use of visual memory where the picture and all its details are stored intact. Memorable images often can be recalled many years later in minute detail, carrying with them any learning concepts that were embedded in them. Combine a visual with song or story and you have a doubly effective teaching method.
As an example, the image here from I Can Sing from 1 to 10 shows the number 6, and there are groups of 6 objects to count in the same picture. The song that goes with this image relates the name “Six” to the picture as you sing “6 is a unicycle; watch me ride.” The visual also unforgettably conveys that 6 is made of two groups of 3. As you sing your way through the book, your child will learn the song that links number symbol to number name and will see the illustrations that go with the song, capturing not only the look of each number but the “how many” that each number represents.
Story. Stories can be considered childhood’s language. Children are natural storytellers, they think of their lives in terms of story. The story line or plot is the glue that holds all the elements of the story together. If you want your little one to remember a sequence of events or steps in a procedure, make up a story that links all the pieces together. Combine a story sequence with images to make an even more effective learning experience.
Alphabet Tales is a great example of how to use story and visuals to convey “schoolish concepts” in a way that is friendly and age appropriate for the very young child. Try cuddling in a rocking chair with a toddler and talking your way through the stories in the book without making any attempt to teach him. Over time, he will have absorbed a lot of ideas about letters, their shapes and their sounds, but it will have been done in a way that is in sync with his developmental stage. For more details, see an example of a story taken from Alphabet Tales.
Touch. Very young children learn about the world through their senses—sight, smell, touch, sound, and taste. They pick up cues about natural characteristics of objects in their world; they learn about things that are soft or hard, heavy or light, smooth or rough, hot or cold, sweet or sour, and so forth. They learn about shape, what happens when you drop something, what “round” means and how round objects behave. They learn so much that becomes background for formal learning later in life. The richer the sensory background, the broader the store of prior knowledge and understanding the child will bring to school.
Because babies and toddlers tend to touch everything and put much of what they touch into their mouths, it's easy to find ourselves just rushing around snatching things from their hands or from their mouths. But this snatching reflex of ours must be tempered with a knowledge that the very young are doing exactly what they are supposed to be doing at that age. They are using their senses to learn much about the world around them.
And because the very young rely so strongly on their senses, the richer their environment, the more they will learn. A rich environment is one that is full of accessible real things, not shiny plastic toys that play sounds, or ding, or rattle, or jump around. The child is a passive observer with these kinds of self-action toys. Better to give your child access to real objects even if it means picking things up interminably. Ideas include an empty laundry basket, some balls, blocks, a metal pan, a plastic bowl, spoons; you know, just “stuff” that is in the house. The laundry basket can become a car that carries some of the objects. If she puts balls into the basket and then pushes the “car” around, she will notice that balls roll around, that she will need to maneuver the basket around chairs or coffee table, and that if she runs into a table leg or wall she will need to back up and try a different angle of approach. If you give her access to your Tupperware drawer, she will undoubtedly make a mess but will also learn much about what fits into what, what various shapes feel like, etc.
Here is a picture of items my 3 year old great nephew selected from a kitchen drawer to play with. Three tiny foam balls added to the magic as he experimented with rolling the balls through the canning funnel and into the various containers here.
If you are introducing numbers and how many they are, try providing your child with groups of threes—three spoons, three stacking cups, three crayons, three little pebbles—just so she can get used to how many three is. She will find that she can hold 2 of the items in one hand and 1 in the other. This kind of unconscious learning will stand her in good stead when it is time for formal math concepts such as 1+2=3. She will have a background that is rich in understanding before starting her formal education.
These are just a few simple elements to include as you teach your child basic concepts in a developmentally appropriate way and prepare him for formal learning in school. Having said all this, I want to emphasize that the most significant preparation we can give our little tots is a close relationship with them—one in which they feel secure, cared for, and competent, as their emotional development will be the foundation of all other learning.