Tag Archives: children’s literacy

Going to the Zoo Through Play and Books

Our play zoo!

My little gal V has a stuffed animal collection that I’ve worked to limit since she joined our family a little over two years ago.  I have put out the word to curtail gift giving of fluffy friends since year one.  Still, in addition to the 10 or so that accompany her to bed every night, we have a pet net (remember these from the 80’s…I saved mine) and a large Rubbermaid bin full of the little friends.

So it came to me one day that we had a full-on menagerie living in our house and we might introduce that element into some pretend play.  In a bored moment, V and I pulled out all the stuffed friends and decided to make a zoo.

We grouped the animals into area by type (birds, bugs, jungle animals, farm animals, dogs, elephants, etc.).  It came to me that this activity actually is a great one for helping kids sort and categorize objects by similarities or differences (kind of like the Sesame Street activity:  “One of these things is not like the other; one of these things doesn’t belong.  Can you guess which thing is not like the other before I finish this song…”).

Sitting amidst our pretend zoo, we decided to read some zoo related stories which I’ve listed for you below.  I know this is a simple activity, but it’s something to take up some time on a rainy fall day when you are at a loss for what might keep your toddler/preschooler occupied.

From Head to Toe by Eric Carle:  This book involves physical motion that is sure to get your little one moving and mimicking animal actions.

123 to the Zoo by Eric Carle:  This is a wordless counting book; your little ones can practice their animal identification and counting skills as they look at the colorful illustrations.

Zoo Parade by Harriet Ziefert and Simms Taback:  This rhythmic story has been a favorite in our house for a while.  We used to use animal puppets while reading it aloud.  The rhymes and sounds of the story will have you chanting along…”What kind of walking will you do today?”  V loves this one and so do I; I think I have much of it committed to memory!

And to bring a little fun sing-a-long into your play, remember you can always sing “Mama’s taking us to the zoo tomorrow” with Raffi!

Enjoy your zoo play and make good use of the mountain of stuffed animals in your home!


Learning and Loving to Read

One of the great gifts my mother gave me is a voracious love of reading.  She read aloud to me from an early age, took me to libraries and book sales, and always made sure I had plenty of reading material available to me.  As adults, she and I swap books and recommendations; whenever I return to my home state to visit, I nearly always come home with one or more books.

It was no surprise to anyone when I married a man with a love of books that rivals my own.  Anyone who has moved us during one of our 12+ moves can attest to the extensiveness of our personal library.  Currently, we have reduced our load down to five overstuffed bookshelves, some boxes in closets and the basement, and several baskets full of books throughout our house.  Books are in every room…usually even in the laundry room as I stack piles to be returned to the library.

V “reading” her books at 11 months old.

As the child of two avid readers, our daughter V was exposed to books starting in the womb, as her parents read aloud “Pride and Prejudice and Zombies” groaning at the inept literary references and cackling at the goofy zombie antics.  We now find it funny that at age two she selects this particular book off of our bedroom shelf and carries it through the house, looking at pictures of “zomies.”  Though she will be formally introduced to Jane Austen before we let her read this book, I don’t think it is chance that she is drawn to this story.  She’s heard it before.

There are many reasons why I personally believe that reading is critical to life.  Reading introduces you to experiences, people, places that you might not otherwise encounter.  It can help develop a sense of understanding of difference and empathy for others.  It can facilitate critical thinking and open up the mind and heart.  For me, reading can comfort, motivate, empower, engage, explain, teach, and enrich my world.  There are many reasons to read and many ways to promote reading in your children’s lives as well.

Some of the ways we expose V to the written word are as follows:

-We have baskets of face out books around the house.  She has one basket of books that are currently seasonal/interesting to her by her bed.  Another basket near her bed is full of library books.  When it gets quiet, I know to look for her snuggled on her pillows flipping through stories.

-We started attending library programs at age 8 weeks old. She knows our children’s librarian by name and feels very comfortable in the local library space.

-We make a weekly library trip.  At the library, I select a combination of books that match her current learning interests.  If she’s all about bugs that week, I get every book I can find on bugs.  If she loves Mo Willems books, we stack a giant pile on the counter.

-We read books over and over again.  She picks from the selections available to her and we read them, sometimes ad nauseum.  She easily commits her favorites to memory and can recite them back to us while turning pages, proudly saying “I read it my big self!”

-We read to her during potty training; we have mini books in the diaper bag for waiting at restaurants and doctor’s offices; we bring books during car rides…even short ones.

-We have an entire bin of books on CD and tape next to our stereo system in the living room and play them throughout the day.  When she gets bored, instead of the TV, I offer her a recorded story when I am busy with housework.  She can play her books on tape by herself and we are teaching her how to gently handle the CDs so she can play those as well. (Note:  you can pick these up cheaply at garage sales, online or from library or community book sales.)

-We have a comfortable reading nook near her books on tape and sensory bins.  There are pillows and a blanket in her nook.  A box near her nook includes books that tie in with the themed sensory bins stacked beside it.  For example:  we have books on dinosaurs in the box and a dinosaur sensory bin that she can explore while in her nook. I rotate titles in the sensory bin reading box.

-I pull out seasonal titles to read as the year progresses.  For example: as Halloween approaches, I go through all our shelves and pull related titles to put in spots where V tends to sit and read.  If they are handy, she’ll choose them.  This keeps our selection fresh and helps with learning about seasons, holidays, and related thematic activities.

-We tie in art projects, museum trips, nature walks and projects, and science projects with the books we are reading.

-We connect her TV viewing with reading.  We read books about familiar characters she encounters on the DVDs we watch with her:  Curious George, Dora the Explorer, Diego, Little Einsteins, Winnie the Pooh, some Disney characters.  When she is interested in a topic from a show like Sid the Science Kid, we find books about the topic (example: we found books on weather and posted a weather chart).  When we read about a topic like bugs, we find non-fiction kid oriented documentaries at the library for her to view (like MicroCosmos or Stargazer). We limit her TV viewing.

-We read every night at bedtime.  Sometimes we read books that are well above her age level, like the Magic Tree House series.  She loves the one about knights and we just finished the one about the ice age and sabertooth tigers.  This helps her build her vocabulary and also stretches her ability to attend to a book with limited pictures.  She fell asleep more than once to a DK early reader about knights; this was a topic that fascinated her for a while.

-We have a busy bag basket filled with literacy activities that she can select as part of self-directed play.  There is a wipe board and dry erase markers for printing letters (she can manage some letters at 2 years of age); there are textured flashcards and magnetic letter boards for her to touch and explore.  We do not drill her on letters or words but answer questions or play with her at her request.  Based on the reading I have done on the topic, I do not recommend pressuring toddlers and preschoolers with flashcards and workbook literacy activities.

-We have a chalkboard where we select a letter of the alphabet and write down all the words we can think of that begin with the chosen letter.  V loves to brainstorm the words with us now that she is older and it is great to see how her vocabulary is developing.

-V also accompanies her writer parents to poetry and fiction readings where she sees us read our written work; I hope this will make a big impression on her and empower her to explore her own stories as she matures.

There are so many ways to help children explore and enjoy reading.  In our house, we like to keep it fun and interest-based so that V will crave more words and more literacy experiences.  While she may turn out to have different reading interests that her father and I, I hope that she will always feel comfortable with books and using books to further her life-long learning.

Here are some wonderful resources that I have recently read about promoting literacy in children.  I hope you take the time to check out one or all of them.  Give the Read Aloud Handbook as a gift to teachers or principals or to a new parent.  There is no telling what can happen when you give the gift of reading to a person in your life.

The Read-Aloud Handbook by Jim Trelease

Raising Bookworms:  Getting Kids Reading for Pleasure and Empowerment by Emma Walton Hamilton

Raising a Reader:  A Mother’s Tale of Desperation and Delight by Jennie Nash


Playing with her food and other language learning fun…

V goofing around with her Alphatots!

What kid doesn’t love French fries?  I know my daughter does; her fave meal is “chick and friesss.”  So when I found Ian’s Alphatots fries in the local market the other day, I grabbed a pack from the frozen section.  Gluten free, egg free, milk-free, they are great for kids with allergy or dietary issues. V helped put them on the baking sheet to bake and when ready, we sat down at the table to enjoy.  She pulled each letter out of the Pyrex container, saying the ones she knows (I, O, G, M) and guessing at others until I gave her the correct answer.  This is a fun and tasty way to practice our letters.  Alphabet pasta is another fun option; unfortunately, our box is still sitting in our cupboard waiting to join my next soup, as V opted not to eat the tiny, tiny letters.

I am not an advocate of flashcards; they seem too pushy for children less than 2 (or even older).  We have a few packs of flashcards with Space and Dinosaur pictures and themes that V likes to sort through and ask questions about.  This method feels fine to me, because it is self-initiated and unpressured.  We do have one pack of alphabet flashcards graciously given to us by one of V’s grandparents.  I will offer V the opportunity to play and explore them, but do not think it is developmentally appropriate to perform drilling exercises with toddler age kiddos.  On the other hand, textured letters, which toddlers can trace with their fingers, offer them an opportunity to have a sensory experience while learning the beginning strokes of writing.  We have not created textured cards yet, as I feel V is still a little young, but we will eventually do this craft project.  You can use index cards, Elmer’s Glue and sand or glitter to create a textured card, or you can use fabric (this is more labor intensive and adult-driven).  Felt ABC’s on a felt board are also a fun free-play experience for young children; make sure they are large enough to avoid a choking hazard.  For older children, ABC sewing cards where they can thread yarn through letter shapes is another fun project.  You can cut these out of cardboard, punch evenly spaced holes with a punch and purchase some shoelaces for easy and inexpensive lacing.  You can even have your child help you paint the cards as an art project!

In our house, we do A LOT of reading.  We started reading to V, while she was in utero.  The book of choice was “Pride and Prejudice and Zombies,” a book that we hoped would appeal to both my husband and my literary preferences.  It amused for a short time, but the writing was so poor, that we eventually gave it up!  These days, the reading selection is a little more child-centered, but still a huge part of our daily routine.  We read before bedtime, during potty training efforts, and on breaks through the day.  V has sat through 120+ pages of Dora the Explorer stories at one sitting, and has started to say words from some of her favorite stories on her own.  While she may not be “reading” yet, she is certainly memorizing and getting clues about the words from contexts.  She mimics the exact tone I use to read the same words in some of her favorite Duck and Goose stories by Tad Hills.  Miss Spider’s ABCs is another great kids’ book for letter learning; the colorful illustrations are captivating as well.  There are many strictly “ABC” books, but I find that V learns whole words as well from her reading experiences.

Alphabet refrigerator letters are a great way for kids to get their fingers around the shape of the letter and also get additional exposure to letters.  V likes me to put the letters in order and point to each one while we sing our ABC’s.  She also likes to sort the letters by color, and can be found carting around all the “pourple” ones in a little Easter basket she plays with.  So these can be a great tool for learning colors as well!  Sometimes we spell words together like “Mama, Dada, V’s name, Dog, Bunny, Go”.

My husband invented a fun action-based game where he uses heart signs attached to popsicle sticks to instruct her to follow certain actions:  hugs, dance, jump, stop, go, freeze, time-in.  Only a few of these signs have any additional symbols, and V can read each of the signs presented to her.  The actions associated with the words have made them fun, and she is getting reading exposure as well.

V also plays an adapted version of Eric Carle’s “The ABC Game.”  We show her a card and have her move her token to the matching letter.  She loves matching games, and LOVES playing “gamies” with Mom and Dad, so she really enjoys this.  We don’t attempt to play this game by the rules at this point, nor do we expect her to finish our version of play.  We do it as long as it remains fun, then we move on.

I know all the research shows that TV for small children is a no-no, and especially for children under 2.  But I have found that for many of us moms or dads, we need a half-hour a day to prepare a meal, take care of personal grooming, make an important phone call, or just to function.  So while I try to limit V’s TV watching, she does not live a TV free existence.  However, we do not have cable, and I think it is really important to choose V’s viewing options carefully.  WordWorld is one of the best shows I have seen for young children.  All of the characters and much of the scenery are made up of words.  The “Let’s Build A Word” song gets V moving and she also repeats some letters after them.  I caught her in the act of spelling a word while watching WordWorld one day, and I tell you, it assuaged a tiny, tiny bit of the mama guilt I feel over the TV viewing!  So if you let your child watch TV, WordWorld is a great educational option.

Each week, my husband and I pick one letter of the week to focus on.  We have a chalkboard in V’s playroom where we write all of the words we can think of beginning with the chosen letter.  We read them out loud to V when we think of it; I read that children learn words best when they hear the words from more than one person, so having a verbal household where she is exposed to lots of different words, both simple and complex, will hopefully set her up for long-term language learning.  We do this as a fun exercise for us, and maybe she’ll pick up a word or two along the way.  She does remember the letters we select for the week, and will occasionally point to the board and tell us the letter.  So she’s getting something out of it.

V likes to point out letters on t-shirts that M and I wear and sometimes she gets them right!  I think providing children many opportunities to be exposed to letters and words in a fun and nonthreatening or unpressured way is the optimum environment for language learning!  My psychology background is not in literacy, however, so you may want to do some research on your own to get additional perspectives.  From the outcomes I’m seeing with V so far, our approach to language learning seems effective; she recognizes some letters, can identify some words, and is speaking in two-three word sentences.  She is 21 months old, so I’m feeling pretty good about her learning.

I am interested to hear your thoughts and ideas about teaching letters and words to toddlers; please share any projects, games or crafts you use in your house!

Author’s Note:  Pamela is not receiving any compensation for the products discussed in the above post!  Wouldn’t that be nice!


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