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COLUMN: Help children learn through activity

By Alice Nickelson

Davison/Hanson 4-H Youth Program Adviser

Parents are a baby's first teacher. Things you do in daily life provide learning experiences for your child -- bathing, feeding, playing. Play is the work of children. We need to find interesting play materials for them to investigate.

Commercial toys can be very expensive and often don't meet the child's developmental needs. Be creative. Almost everything around the house can be an educational "toy" for your child. Safety factors must be considered. Be aware of sharp edges, small pieces and toxic paint or glue. Remember, almost everything goes in a baby's mouth.

Young children learn best through activity. They need to hear, see, touch and use all their senses to investigate surroundings. Parents have many chances as they go about their activities to help a child learn basic concepts such as texture, color, size, shape, distance and temperature and learn the words associated with each. Many opportunities for learning are available through daily tasks such as cleaning, laundry, meal time, shopping and travel.

Sensory experiences are very important to help a child learn about self-worth. The experience of handling dry sand and wet sand, manipulating paints and clay, controlling the use of woodworking tools and materials. Be sure to arrange tools and supplies for sensory experiences where children have access to them, then let them decide how to use them.

Children learn by doing. Trial and error is an important way to learn. We can supply them with a magnet and a variety of items to try and pick up. This is a much better way to learn about the world than a lecture on magnets. Parents and teachers can prepare a variety of challenging materials and activities, and let children discover and learn on their own.

Make learning meaningful. Ask kids some questions about their experiences. Have you thought of ways to relate what is learned to life skills they can use in the future? Encourage kids to share what they have learned with others. A simple demonstration of their activities to other children, or participation in an art show or fair give them a chance to gain response to what they have done.

Great benefits are gained through talking about experiences. Listen carefully to your children. Let them know they have your full attention. From this, they can learn their value as a person. When parents listen to a child they are able to know what the child feels and understands. You can then help them find out more about the experience by asking a few well-chosen questions.

We need to help our school-age children develop good study skills and learn from their mistakes. An assignment done in a rush, at the last minute, often gets a poor grade. While it's tempting to tell them why they failed, parents can help children figure out how to do better next time. Listen sympathetically, then ask "what do you think you might do differently next time?" Parents can help by encouraging kids to examine what happened and plan ahead for next time. Kids make mistakes, and helping them do better in the future is a critical life skill. A child's learning is far more important than a grade on a report card.