We were camping in southwest Colorado with our friends. After setting up camp we decided to go on a little adventure from the tent pad and picnic table. Together with my friend and our four young children (ages 5, 4, 3, 3) we meandered along a trail and found a gurgling stream. There we stopped for snapping some pictures, tossing rocks and sticks in the water, and otherwise playing.
My 4 year old friend, Noa, whose first language is Japanese, started using sticks and rocks to make English letters. I watched her make an "N" and then experiment how to make an "O." Ultimately she decided on a round rock. She kept working to make the last letter of her name while her younger sister worked similarly with found natural objects to spell her own name, "Toa."
I was impressed and I took a picture of Noa's work. The picture was mostly for her to have after the trip as a souvenir but when I got home I realized that her work represents something profoundly important (and trendy) in early childhood education. Her work demonstrates that children can and should learn everywhere. Even outside. Especially outside.
Pre-literacy skills are not best acquired through worksheets, tracing and mini lectures. Pre-literacy skills should not be measured or recognized the same way older literacy skills are measured and recognized. Pre-literacy is merely learning that shapes have meaning, that a person can make those shapes, and if they put those shapes together they can communicate in a new way.
Letters and numbers do not have to be written with a crayon. They can be built with sticks like Noa did in the backcountry. They can be made with shadows, recognized in clouds in the sky, and made with their food. Letters can be played with as rubble or sorted by shape. There is not a limit to or best way for young children to play with letters. They merely need to be invited into the world of letters through books.
|"Look Mama! I made a 6."|
I think that there are two important details that "promote" early learning: 1. reading and 2. playing outside. If books and reading with a loving adult is a regular part of a child's life then playing with letters will happen organically and meaningfully through play. And if the play is outside then the learning materials are limitless. From the earth beneath their feet to the clouds in the sky, a child can (and will) find shapes, make shapes, and share their joy of discovery with you.