I have previously written a piece about How Learning Happens. Generally, I discussed how learning happens in a baby as he grows up. I have also given tips on how to make the learning process fun for you and for your older child. Read it now by clicking here. Today, I want to zero in on how our babies, toddlers and children learn lessons – those that are taught in school and other supplemental classes we have sent them to (musical instruments, abacus, martial arts, painting, among others). In OT, we usually refer to these as Concept Building.
When your child was a baby, what did you think to teach him first? The common answer would be none. This is because you were thinking he is too young to be instructed to learn anything. You were not fully aware that you were actually teaching him to suck milk from your breasts or from the bottle, to sleep when you were rocking him, to sit when you were pulling him up, or to listen and talk when you were talking to him. Right?
Among more pro-active parents, especially from my generation, the more common answer would be letters and numbers. In my circle of friends and relatives, I have often encountered new parents looking for posters of letters and numbers to decorate their child’s playroom with. I received videos of my godchildren counting their fingers as a baby. “Ninang, look baby can count!” If my colleagues read this, our minds are probably in unison shouting “Noooooo!”
Among the developmental areas of a child is Cognitive Skills. Wikipedia defines cognitive skills as brain-based skills which are needed in the acquisition of knowledge, manipulation of information and reasoning. It includes imitation skills or the ability to copy, the ability to follow instructions, listening skills, communication skills and the retention skills or the memory to remember concepts.
Imitation skills and memory are the ultimate keys to learning lessons! When your child sees something, he duplicates the picture, action or event in his mind so he can copy it now or later. Memory or recall plays a major factor in retaining these images or imitated events so you don’t need to teach him the concept over and over again.
The dictionary defines the word concept as an abstract idea; a general notion. Letters and numbers are an example of concepts. Colours, shapes, sizes, body parts and all things around us are concepts, categorized under a group of similar objects usually found together or being used together, etc. When the child learns about these concepts, we can say that he is building his knowledge of concepts or Concept Building. The question is, what concept do we teach our children first? The answer is the concept of himself.
Teach him self-concept first
Yes, the first concept to build is about himself. When we call him by name, we teach him his name. You’ll know that he knows his name when he responds to it when you call him. Otherwise, he might not understand that it is his name. So point to him or his picture while saying his name.
Does he know the people who care for him? Don’t forget to introduce yourselves to your baby! So he knows whom to call when he needs something. “Mama’s coming with your milk, wait for me!” or “Change nappy with Dada, go!” Concept building for his family starts here.
Next, we can target the concept of body by teaching him the name of his body parts. We can start with those on his face – eyes, ears, nose, mouth, lips, tongue, etc. Go to the big body parts next – head, shoulders, stomach, back, arms, hand, fingers, legs, feet, toes, etc. You can look for the body parts by saying “Touch your head” or “Where’s your foot?” or “Show me your tongue.” When he gets everything right, you may go ahead and teach the less familiar body parts – forehead, eyebrows, neck chest, elbow, ankles, etc.
Then, make sure that he is familiar with the things that he uses every day! Milk, diaper, pillow, blanket, Teddy, banana, and all the things that he likes! If he likes looking outside the window, tell him it’s a window. You don him sando every day, let him know it is called sando. Through this, we are subtly building the concept of common objects and increase his vocabulary along the way.
It would be best to use the correct form of the word for every label you are trying to teach your child. Some parents opt to make these words shorter and easier to say so the baby learns it easily and it is also okay. You will, however, need to undo it later, if he does not do it by himself. Classic examples are Dada for Daddy, nappy for a diaper, blanky for a blanket, nana for banana, and others!
Nouns and Verbs
After your child learns the names and labels of the persons and things around him and on him, it is time to learn actions by using none other than the action words themselves – Verbs! We do this by talking to them even if they don’t talk to us yet. While he’s eating an orange, you ask, “Eat orange? Eat, eat, eat.” You notice him jumping on his crib, you say “You like to jump, jump, jump, do you?” Before feeding him, you tell him, “Let’s wash hands, wash hands.”
It will pay to be a mega-talkative parent to your baby or toddler just as he is learning how to talk. At this stage, they’re like a sponge and they are absorbing what they can from around them. Model the language you want him to learn, and he will. As you pretend to be a commentator at this sports event that is your child, he is associating the object to the word you always use for it. Neurons fire in his brain as his vocabulary is building. Later, when his mouth muscles and coordination skills are ready, he will be able to say them back to you and in the proper context.
The beauty of teaching the above-mentioned concepts first before the popular letters and numbers or colours and shapes is that all your “teaching sessions” are functional and consistent. You do not have to schedule a “study time” to teach him about the food he likes to eat or the garments he likes to wear. Just say it out loud as he is eating it (food) or doffing or donning it (garment). Plus, he gets to apply it at once! This also gives him the opportunity to show off what he knows every day because he uses and does them every day.
Basic and Academic Concepts
After learning all about himself at this point in his life, learning about the basic concepts first will lay the foundation for learning the academic concepts later. But here is where the “abstract quality” of concepts come in. Shapes, colours and sizes as well as letters and numbers seem to be intangible concepts but with the help of toys, educational videos, play and the hierarchy of concepts building, learning about these is really simple.
Concept Building Hierarchy: Matching, Sorting, Recognizing and Identifying (MSRI)
We start with matching. This is putting together similar objects, one-is-to-one. With shapes, put circle and circle together. Using colours, hold together red and red. Size-wise put big and big in one container. Remember to adapt to a conducive-for-learning environment. Do not bombard your child with clutter or with too many stimuli. Initially, if you are targeting to match shapes, just present two choices to choose from. Increase this as your child becomes more familiar with what to do with the task.
Sorting is grouping together similar objects. In a group of 5 squares and 5 triangles, randomly placed on a surface, but all squares on the left and all triangles on the right. The same goes for colours and sizes. Later, you can put foils in the group such that you add a rectangle in the mix and see how your child will respond.
Recognizing is getting the target object from a roster of different objects. Red, yellow, and blue on the table, ask your child, “Can you give me the blue?” Level this up and look for two colours at a time or increase the roster of objects on the table by making it five or six pieces. Do the same with shapes and sizes.
Lastly, identifying is simply, naming. Showing him a big and a small book, then raising the big one, you ask, “Is this big or small?” Raising the small one, you ask, “How about this one?” Again, you can apply the same task with the colours and shapes.
In learning the letters and numbers, apply MSRI as well. Stay with one hierarchy at a time, for example, do matching first, until your child has mastered it, then you can move on to the next one, which is sorting.
I plan to write more in-depth about learning the basic and academic concepts, as well as, learning how to write them. For now, I hope you learn and understand the how’s and why’s regarding the best concepts to build in your child before getting all nerdy early with the letters and numbers!