We all recognize the unique opportunity that we have when our children are preschoolers. They come to us as babies with a blank slate, and sometimes the responsibility to teach them and lead them through their early learning seems overwhelming.

Research backs up this feeling. I recently read this:

“At birth the human brain is in an amazingly unfinished state. The hardware is present but the connections are yet to be made. The child’s experiences in the larger world result in connections that are reinforced as the experiences are repeated. This becomes the neural circuitry that lays the foundation for the child’s lifelong learning.” (Shonkoff & Phillips 2000)

If I could tell you that there was one fail-safe parenting strategy that experts agree is incredibly beneficial to developing excellent “circuitry,” would you be interested?

I thought so. 🙂

Here it is. Are you ready?


No kidding, as an educator for over 25 years who geeks out by reading about what we’re learning, I read more and more about the value of play in both developing the underlying circuitry of children’s’ brains and preparing them for school academics.

“Play is not just some touchy-feely activity. And it’s not just that you want to leave children alone and not rush them. There’s hard evidence that children learn more things through play than they would in some academic setting.” (Dr. Alison Gopnik)

There are several valuable things that children learn through play:

Learning about people

Through pretend play, which may involve imaginary friends, alternative worlds, dolls, and costumes, children learn the answers to these important questions:

  • What are people like?
  • How do people think?
  • What kinds of things can people do?

While children navigate pretend relationships and scenarios, they are learning and practicing skills that will serve them well as they begin forming relationships with their family and friends.

Learning about the physical world

Ever watched in amazement as your preschooler who seems to have virtually no attention span plays at a sand table or water table for hours? While they pour and pack and play with these objects, children are learning about space and volume.

“The old standbys of water, sand, mixing bowls, and cardboard boxes are still the most effective ways for babies and young children to learn about the physical world.” (Dr. Alison Gopnik)

Getting ready for academics

Research is telling us that the more children learn from play when they are young, the more they learn from academics in future. They are building necessary infrastructure – road systems in the brain – for future success in school.

We also know that working on academics too soon shows no benefit later and may mean that babies & preschoolers miss building other important skills.

The recipe for good play includes…

  • Time. Children need open-ended stretches of time in which to play.
  • Open-ended toys. Think multiple uses when selecting toys for your child.
  • Academics? Try word games together. Name everything you pass in the car that begins with a particular letter. Think of all the words you can together that rhyme with a name or color or game.
  • Present a challenge if your child needs it. As questions like, “How many things can we think of to do with a paperclip?” or “How many blue signs did we pass on the train?”
  • When reading together, ask questions like, “What’s another way that story could have ended?”

Ideas to promote reading readiness

  1. Sometimes, point to the words on the page as you read.
  2. Sometimes, read the title and ask your child to make a prediction
  3. Sometimes, take “picture walks” and have your child tell the story using only the pictures
  4. Sometimes, ask your child questions after reading a book
  5. Sometimes, connect reading and writing