As parents we all want to do the best for our children.  When we hear stories on the news, read articles on the Internet and listen to what other parents report on what they are doing, it is easy to doubt our own path with our children – to wonder if we are doing enough or doing the right things.

Through my reading of the research on child development and learning and through my experience with my own and other children, I know that we should relax.  That doesn’t mean doing nothing – it means letting children learn and discover naturally with our guidance and the guidance of their teachers. 

The research on language development shows that babies and toddlers are amazing learners.  Children learn language from conversations, from having us ask questions and building and expanding on their answers.  One study showed that teachers and caregivers that talk more and ask more questions to toddlers resulted in 3 year olds that knew more letters, shapes and colors.

Many parents have anxiety that playing is not learning.  But we should remember that in preschool age children, learning should be fun – a natural extension of their curiosity.  If we take the time to play with and talk to our children, the learning will follow. 

Researchers have looked at the outcomes of children from “academic” preschools that focused on memorization and worksheets and children from “play and discovery” preschools.  By the time they were in first grade no short or long term advantage was seen in the children from the academic preschools in terms of academic achievements or intellectual skills.  However, the children from the “play and discovery” preschools were less anxious and more creative.

My own anecdotal experience shows at least the first part of the study to hold true.  I have a child in second grade and one in Kindergarten.  Among their classmates are graduates from play-based preschool as well as children from other more “academic” preschools.  It is impossible to tell which child went to which preschool based on the reading and writing skills that I have observed.

Research on emerging literacy shows that the ability to tell a story correlates with the ability to read.  To learn to read children must have a large vocabulary, must be able to tell a story and must have phonological awareness–the ability to hear letter sounds.

To prepare our children to read we should be engaging them in conversations and asking them questions.  We should be reading to them and asking them to tell us stories – even the story of what they have done that day.  We can play verbal word games with them to help them hear sounds. 

I cannot imagine a better place for a child to experience this perfect storm of learning than while at play.  While playing they listen to, act out and create their own stories and plays.  This is teaching emerging literacy.  At play they learn sounds and rhythm in music.  This is the beginning of phonological awareness.  At play they are outside exploring nature and are learning to create with arts and crafts.  This is allowing learning to be fun.

Vanessa Charette, M.D., has been a pediatrician at Cook Children’s for 10 years and joined Frank McGehee, M.D., in 2013. She feels blessed to join Dr.McGehee in a pediatric practice that has been a Cook Children’s legacy for more than 70 years. . As your pediatrician she will spend time with you discussing nutrition, child development and take the time to address any concerns you have about your child’s health. Dr. Charette is married and the mother of two active young boys.

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