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Preschool Thinking Skills

By Melissa Morgan
Printed in Practical Homeschooling #97, 2011.

How to begin training your preschooler's thinking skills

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Melissa Morgan

by Melissa Morgan

Preschool Thinking Skills

Preschoolers are movers and shakers. They love to learn through hands-on activities and action-based experiences. Most preschoolers have shorter attention spans than school-age youngsters, but will stay engaged longer in an activity that they choose themselves. It helps to offer many choices, and keep instructions simple and learning sequential.

Thinking Skill Materials You Can Make Yourself

Make your own thinking skill materials, to play and learn! Go on a pebble hunt, and create ladybug counters by painting small round rocks together. Paint the rocks red, and allow them to dry. Then place small dots all over the bug bodies. Create an equal number of bee counters, by painting yellow bodies with black stripes. Use your counters for playing a thinking game, such as checkers.

Create patterns of color or shapes by stringing large beads or buttons onto string or pipe cleaners. Attach strings of ten beads to a wooden frame (an adult will need to hammer in eye hooks) to build an abacus. (If your preschooler still puts objects in his or her mouth, make sure that these activities are supervised carefully.)

Puzzles and building blocks do more than just keep kids busy—they can help young children make the transition from concrete to abstract thinking. Pattern blocks develop thinking skills, as kids create and copy designs and duplicate the pictures. An adult or handy older kid can cut and sand different sizes of small discarded wood pieces into a variety of patterns and shapes for little kids. Alternately, bulk packages of sponges come in different colors, and are easy to cut into shapes that little kids can use to design pictures. With these simple tools, kids learn to recognize symmetry, distinguish similarities and differences, and explore spatial relationships—skills that will be essential to later academic learning including math and reading.

Toys are just props for a child’s thinking; sometimes simpler is best. How many ways can your child think of to use a large box? Build a bus, a police car, a kitchen stove, a store, a playhouse. How about several large boxes: can your child imagine a train, a spaceship, a village?

Paper Activities

Children need basic spatial-temporal perceptual (perceptions involving space and time) skills to succeed at math and reading. Young children enjoy matching activities, drawing lines to match the animals to what they eat, or grouping types by putting an X on what doesn’t belong. Drawing lines, cutting out pictures, and writing an X can help children develop the visual perceptual and small motor skills for writing, as well as helping the child learn to think abstractly.

Your preschooler doesn’t need thinking skills worksheets. However, if you want them to “play school” with an older sibling, you can find plenty of free paperwork at tlsbooks.com/preschoolthinkingskills.htm. Books such as Building Thinking Skills, available through criticalthinking.com, provide activities to help your preschooler improve vocabulary, pre-reading, pre-writing, math, logic, spatial, and auditory processing skills.

Listen and Learn

Children can develop auditory thinking skills by exploring simple musical instruments, singing, rhyming, finger play and signing games. Ringing bells and playing simple songs on musical keyboards can also improve small children’s spatial-temporal skills. Nellie Edge, author of Books That Sing and Rhyme, says that “The brain is uniquely wired to effortlessly learn through music; the rhythms of sound have a powerful effect on cognition.” Download free little song books at nellieedge.com.

Songs, such as the old favorites “B-I-N-G-O” and “Pumpkin Stew,” can also be games, and help develop your child’s imagination. What can I put in my pumpkin stew? Much more than pumpkins! Find many more songs and games at songsforteaching.com/preschoolkinder garten.htm.

Musical games such as “London Bridge,” “Ring around the Rosie,” and “If You’re Happy and You Know It” help improve listening and motor skills. In “London Bridge,” you need at least three people; two hold up arms to make the bridge, while one person goes under the bridge. Get a group of preschoolers and play “Mary Wore Her Red Dress”—simply change the name and type of clothing to match the children. Using real or made-up sign language along with a song, such as “The Wheels on the Bus,” will help your child remember the words and develop vocabulary.

Most kids never tire of verbal guessing games, such as “I Spy.” To play “I Spy,” you and your preschooler take turns guessing an object. For instance, you might say “I spy with my little eye, something beginning with the sound buh.” (Or, “Something red.”) Agree on a number of chances, perhaps four, to guess the object. Find more ideas for early learning from books such as Slow and Steady, Get Me Ready (Xulon Press), which includes activities for independent play and learning, and Parents Guide to Entertaining and Educating Young Children, Babies & Toddlers (EDC Publishing).

Feed Their Imitation & Imagination

Preschoolers like to imitate—that is one way they learn best. (It is also one way they irritate older siblings, but that is another story!) They will copy your actions, your speech, and your expressions. They will learn many things by watching; so if you want them to learn how to think, show them how.

Make a game of imitation with them—imitate them right back! Most kids love this, and it is a great way to teach them thinking skills. Copy their block tower exactly. Next, build your own block tower, and watch them do it too!

Build Their Listening & Communicating Skills

Preschoolers are great philosophers, but they need an adequate vocabulary and expressive language skills to ask the questions to develop thinking skills. Before a child can interact, they need to verbalize questions such as “Why is the sky blue?” Preschoolers also need good receptive and conversation skills in order to learn.

When children pretend, they are exercising their thinking skills. “What will happen if my action figure falls off the edge of the bed?” “Will my doll need a shot at the doctor’s office?”

Children learn to communicate best when their communication partners (parents, relatives, siblings, and friends) respond to their attempts, and speak at the same level of difficulty, or perhaps a little above their level. Don’t forget to take advantage of waiting times, such as at the grocery shopping checkout line, in the car, or at the doctor’s office.

Use quiet times to help your child develop listening skills. Does your active preschooler know how to wind down enough to hear a story? Can your child think about a story well enough to understand it, discuss, and interact with you about it?

At first, story time can be very short, and it can start out active—perhaps by acting out a short story with stuffed animals or action figures. You will want to gradually take turns telling short stories with your child. Young wiggling children love interactive materials. Books that make noise or that have things you can touch on the page or textures to feel are a good introduction. To help your child increase his or her attention span and build listening skills, choose a time when your youngster would ordinarily be tired, such as right before naps or bedtime. Perhaps you could enlist an older sibling to help model quiet listening skills. Or pretend that a doll or a stuffed toy is sleepy. Your child can help them by being very quiet. Gradually lengthen the quiet, listening time, as your child learns to sit still longer.

What do preschoolers need the most, to develop thinking skills? They need . . . you. Young children play to learn; yet if you try and stick them in a chair, you probably won’t get anywhere. So play with your kids, get in their world, and watch as your preschooler turns into a scholar!

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