Developing Early Reading Skills: It All Starts with Sounds

The more we learn about how children develop reading skills, the more we understand that it all begins with sounds. In fact, a child’s ability to play with the sounds within a word (rhyming, inventing rhymes, adding or removing the sounds within a word) is a key indicator of a child’s future success in developing reading skills. This skill is called Phonemic awareness. It is the ability to hear the individual sounds within spoken words. When we think about what it takes to be able to read, it is easy to see why phonemic awareness is so important. In print the sounds within words are represented by letters. These letters can be taken apart and put together in different ways to create different words. A child who is already familiar with the idea that words are made up of separate sounds that are blended together will have a much easier time making the leap to associating sounds with letters and blending those letters to sound out words.

Exploring the sounds within words is something that anyone can do with a child. It requires no special materials and the child doesn’t need to know anything about the letters of the alphabet (learning which letters go with which sounds will come later). Families, caregivers and teachers can help even the youngest preschoolers begin to develop phonemic awareness just by being silly and playing around with words. Here are a few ideas:

  • Read a lot of nursery rhymes or other rhyming text
  • Sing rhyming songs or songs that emphasize initial word sounds (Baa Baa Black sheep for little ones, and “Apples and Bananas” is a great example for older preschoolers)
  • Say the child’s name then change or remove the initial letter sound (Tommy becomes Ommy or Lommy)
  • Say a word and invent a string of rhymes (Hi there cutie, futie, lutie, putie…)

Phonemic awareness “lessons” can and should be fun, simple and short. It is all about sounds and spoken word. Identifying letters to match those sounds is the next step, and this next step will be a lot easier for kids if they have a solid understanding of the concept that words are made up of individual sounds that are blended together. WoWKit activity binders for preschool and downloads for toddlers are full of activity ideas for developing phonemic awareness. You can check them out at

For more info on phonemic awareness and guidance for educators, check out the resources posted on the University of Oregon Center for Teaching and Learning.


Great Ideas for Making Music Outdoors

Music has the power to lift us- body, mind and spirit. This is especially true for young children. Making and moving to music promotes all areas of development:

  • physical– coordination, muscle tone, fine and gross motor skills develop as children play instruments or dance to music
  • cognitive– creating and listening to music includes problem solving, logical thinking, patterning, counting, cause and effect, scientific discoveries, imagination and creativity
  • language– vocabulary, phonemic awareness, and rhyming can all be developed through songs
  • social– cooperation, turn-taking, give and take and the creation of shared experiences are all a part of the music making process
  • emotional– self-expression, personal reflection and the exploration of moods and feelings

When we take music outdoors all of these wonderful qualities are enhanced. Outdoors children (and teachers) have a heightened sense of freedom. Outdoors we feel more comfortable to let go and explore. We can sing loud, we can play loud, we can get silly and experimental.

So consider creating a music corner in your outdoor space. Every-day items can make wonderful instruments.

  • Plastic flower pots or 5 gallon tubs make great drums
  • a variety of old spoons hanging on a coat hanger can be chimes
  • PVC pipes of various lengths can be tapped with an old flip-flop to create all kinds of cool sounds
  • Pea gravel makes a neat sound when poured over an old washboard
  • Put a little water into a metal bowl and tap it with a stick to hear more funky sounds

Let the Children Play is another blog full of all kids of photos and ideas for musical fun outdoors. Check it out! And if you want even more info on how to create fun and inexpensive musical experiences to your children check out our Music with Little Ones binder for Infants and Toddlers, or our Making Music binder for ages 3-8.

Using Play to Boost Academic Skills

The case for play in early childhood gets stronger and stronger every day. The more we learn about how children grow and develop, the more we see that children need to play to flourish- socially, emotionally AND academically.

A recent article in Newsweek’s The Daily Beast, Let Preschoolers Play! says:

a growing body of research supports the very real benefits of exploratory and playful learning experiences. A 2007 study published in Science evaluated a play-based program, Tools of the Mind, against a non-play-based one. After two years in the play-oriented classrooms, children scored better on self-regulation, cognitive flexibility, and working memory. The self-control kids learn through interacting and playing with others has an academic payoff, too; it’s more strongly correlated with future academic success than either IQ or early reading and math skills.

The article goes on to explain that one of the problems with teaching preschoolers in the way elementary school students are traditionally taught is that learning through trial and error is eliminated. Instead children are “fast tracked” by adults to learn basic skills. The result is limited problem solving skills and diminished creativity. The fact that these are essential skills for our children to be competitive in the business world of the 21st century should have parents and the larger community very worried!

It’s an easy fix. Let young children learn through play and hands-on experimenting!

Secrets of a Well Run Early Childhood Classroom

Young children are wonderful, energetic little beings full of enthusiasm and a zest for life. In a well-run classroom, children are like little bees, their energy a quiet buzz. It is a joy to be these classrooms and watch young minds at work- engaged, curious, making discoveries. But in other classrooms, the bees are like hornets! Their energy stirs up the air around them and makes for pure chaos. In these classrooms teachers are stressed, children are wild, toys are breaking and survival instincts kick in. So, how can you make sure you are the teacher listening to the quiet buzz of good energy? Here is what I’ve found in well run classrooms:

  • Furniture is thoughtfully arranged– avoid wide open spaces. Create cozy nooks and protected areas for special activities like block building or looking at books. Use low shelves or lofts to separate different learning areas.
  • Rules are simple and clear– Create just a few, simple and clear rules and then post them (with simple pictures to support the text). An example might be “We are kind to our friends, We take care of our toys, We listen to our teachers.”
  • Expectations are clear– yes, children need to know the rules, but they also need to know what you expect from them in terms of behavior and productivity. Just as important is that they know what to expect from you. Consistency is key!
  • Teachers get to know individuals– With a friendly greeting each morning and some one-on-one time scattered throughout the day or week, effective teachers know the likes, dislikes, fears and interests of each child.
  • Transitions are structured– Through the use of transition activities like songs, rituals or routines, children know what is expected of them and are guided through moments of transition.
  • Teachers encourage reflective thinking– Instead of praising or scolding, teachers encourage children to think about their recent actions or experiences, to notice how their behavior effected others and how they might do things differently next time.
  • Teachers give students jobs and responsibilities– Children feel important when they have a “teacher job” to do. Successful teachers invite children take over simple tasks like setting the table, watering plants, sweeping the floor, setting out papers, etc.
  • Teachers act as role models– Teachers are proactive instead of reactive and always speak calmly and respectfully to children. Remember, children learn by watching what you do, not so much by listening to what you say.
  • Children have choices– In a well run classroom, children are respected, and while rules need to be followed, children are able to choose activities that interest them, and they have the option to not participate if they are not interested or feel emotionally unable to participate. This means optional activities need to be available, even if it’s just looking at a book quietly.

Developing the secrets of effective classroom management is a skill. To some people it comes more naturally than to others, but every one can learn and develop their management skills. If you can trade the chaos for a quiet buzz, and look forward to the enthusiasm of your children every day,  isn’t it worth it?!

Do you have your own management secretes to share? We’d love to hear them!


Tips For Bringing Structure to Transitions

Transitions are hard for nearly all young children (and their teachers!). Active children take advantage of these “free” moments to run, play or otherwise test boundaries. Children who like order become uncomfortable or nervous with the lack of structure or unclear expectations. Here are a few tips to help bring structure to those moments of transition:

  1. Review your daily schedule and decide if there are  places where you can eliminate a transition time all together. One school I work with has snack set out as an activity choice. Just like other learning centers, participation is limited by the number of seats made available at the table and children rotate through the snack center throughout the morning. This eliminates the transition to snack time and teaches valuable self-help and fine-motor skills (pouring a drink from a small pitcher, spreading cream cheese, cleaning up after oneself, etc.).
  2. Teach expected behaviors– talk about behavior expectations for different transition times. Discuss what the expectations are and why they are important. Then practice those behaviors. It’s a bit like the fire drill practice of your elementary school days. Of course, it’s best if you do this during the first week of school, but any time transitions begin to cause you trouble again, review the expectations and practice. This shouldn’t be a punishment, just a reminder.
  3. Guide behaviors through song– there are all kinds of songs for every transition moment you can imagine, just a Google search away! Transition songs help to remind children of what they should be doing during those transition moments. Kids can’t focus on too many things at once, so if they are singing and following the directions in the song, they are unlikely to be getting into trouble!
  4. Evaluate your expectations– think about what you are asking children to do in light of their age or development. Young children are capable of many things. They can put away their own belongings, they can clean up after themselves, they can get their own snacks, but sitting still and waiting for long periods of time are not developmentally appropriate expectations. Make sure your circle times are short and that you are not expecting children to stand in line and wait for more than a minute or two. Of course, doing a “waiting in line” song is appropriate!

Transitions are important and should be planned as carefully as the rest of your program. Short, smooth transitions are good for the kids and great for you!


Encouraging Self-Control in Young Children

Whether you are a teacher or a parent, nothing is more frustrating than trying to manage a child who struggles with self-control. To be successful with friends, in school and in life, children need to learn how to control their bodies and manage their impulses. For some children this comes naturally, but for many others, it takes work. Here are some strategies for parents and teachers:

  • Make sure your home or classroom is safe– close off areas of the room that you don’t want children to access. Put away objects that you don’t want children to touch. If some things can’t be removed from your space, teach children how to handle things carefully and praise them when they do.
  • Be reassuring and supportive– no matter how independent or “tough” a child may seem, all young children need to feel confident in the love of the adults in their lives. Be aware of the subtle (or not so subtle) signals that your child sends you to let you know they need your support. Take the time to snuggle often and don’t make fun of them for needing a hug. Lots of love when they are young will help them develop a stronger sense of self and confidence.
  • Show confidence in your child’s abilities– “I can do it myself!” is a phrase young children say often. Take them at their word and set up the experience to be successful. This might mean having non-breakable cups and small pitchers on hand so that children can pour their own drinks, or setting aside more time to leave the house so that children can put on their coats and hats by themselves. If they make a mistake, help them to fix it without judgment. Offer a sponge to clean up spills. Don’t chastise the child for spilling. We all need to practice new things.
  • Offer choices that match a child’s ability– If your toddler doesn’t want to get ready for bed, offer a choice of 2 pajamas to put on. Invite your preschooler to pull a wagon or ride a tricycle when you go for a walk. Giving children the power to make choices shows them that you are confident in their abilities. Even discipline can be accomplished through choices. “Would you like to use a quieter voice and stay here with us, or would you like to leave? Your job is to set up appropriate choices and follow through. Start with just 2 for toddlers and more for older children.

Children are a lot like adults. When we feel we have no control over our situations we get frustrated. Children often act out just to have a voice. With these tips we can let them know we hear them, we love them, we trust them and we can give them the opportunity to be successful with some appropriate responsibilities.

Invest in Early Ed and Care- The Video

They say a picture is worth a thousand words. This video is worth so much more! Through the voices of 4 children (an infant – 4 years old) we hear and see the effects of poverty and a lack of a positive environment in the early years. The video clip is targeted to New Mexico legislators, but the facts and statistics presented apply to every community across the country. We can invest in children and save money. It’s a win-win!