Thursday, May 10, 2012

Teaching Toddlers: Colors, Counting, Shapes, Letters

Here are some of my favorite ways to teach very young children:
  • Colors: Point out colors in nature. Toddlers love to be outside and explore the natural world, so show them real colors in flora and fauna. Talk to them about colors that have personal meaning to them: the color of your eyes, the color of our car, the color of our house, the color of your new shoes, the color of your toy trains.  Let them touch, taste & experiment with colors through art and food.
  • Counting: Understand that for toddlers, counting is not very relevant. There is little motivation or reward to actually count anything. The best things to focus on with regard to numbers & counting for little ones are: a) understanding one or more than one and b) counting with 1:1 correspondence a very few meaningful objects. For example, count their fingers and toes, or ask them to get their shoes for an outing and then count each shoe as they retrieve it. Saying "12345678910" has as much connection to their future math skills as singing the alphabet song does to their future literacy (as in, very little). It is not much more than a fun pony trick for a toddler, so focus more on big picture concepts like more/less, a lot/a little, one/more than one.
  • Shapes: Look for shapes all around the household and neighborhood - cookware, furniture, mirrors, street signs, jewelry. Use descriptive language when speaking and include shape adjectives: "Can you hand me the square pan?" or "Do you like Mommy's heart necklace?" or "Here is a star sticker for you!"
  • Letters: ABC books are great for learning about letters because they involve bonding time and usually include examples the sounds of the letters, but if your little one isn't the type to sit and read for long periods, don't worry. You can use environmental print to create repeated exposures and opportunities to name and discuss letters.  
Remember to always keep the learning relevant. The first letters that children often learn are those in their own name. Why? Because their own name is so important to them.  Likewise, they will easily learn any of the above basics that you can connect to them, their family or friends and their world.

Here are some great books for teaching about colors, counting, shapes, & letters, as well as a couple about opposites that will appeal to young children:


When teaching, it is important to understand that motivation is central to all learning. A child can be motivated for a variety of reasons, but in order for them to learn anything, they must be motivated by something.  Here are some examples of motivating factors for young children:

  • Fun
  • Bonding time with a parent or favorite caregiver
  • Novel activities
  • Nature
  • Novel outings 
  • A desire to understand how something works
  • A desire to communicate needs/wants
  • Favorite foods or other tangibles
These motivators must be built into the learning activity, not given separately as a bribe or reward. For example, if you want to teach your child about the color red, and he loves cherry gelatin, you have a perfect storm of motivated learning at snack time. However, if you are trying to teach your child the names of letters, and you offer him red gelatin as a bribe if he sits and reads an ABC book with you, the activity is going to be a loss. The motivator must be integrated into the learning itself.

Making Connections

If you want a child to learn & retain something, you have to teach it through connected & active repeated exposures. You cannot tell a child (especially a very young child), "Grass is green", and expect that they will retain that information. You must let them see it, feel it, hear it, do it, dance to it, smell it & recreate it.

 For example, to teach my son the color green, I used a book, a song & nature. We had recently been reading "City Dog, Country Frog", a book which includes the line, "City dog didn't stop to admire the green, green grass". This line is accompanied by a vivid watercolor illustration showing an expanse of very bright green grass. The next time we went for a walk outside, I took him to a strip of grass & repeated the line, "City dog didn't stop to admire the green, green grass..." His face lit up with recognition! I didn't belabor the point; we smiled & ran our fingers through the grass & went on with our walk. We continued to read the book and touch the grass and talk about things that were green. Then we found a great recording by Jewel of "The Green Grass Grows All Around" & started playing that for him & singing it to him. My husband burned it to a CD for car trips. We even attended a Mo Willems (author of "City Dog, Country Frog") book signing at Barnes & Noble.

 Some may call this overkill, but...Ollie has known every color, for a long time now, with 100% accuracy. 

 I usually use books as a starting point for learning something new, but you have to go beyond that & help kids make connections to real life, or the knowledge from a book won't stick. And this is coming from someone who adores books & writes The Book Blog, so trust me!

 To review, here are the keys to teaching a child something new:
  1. Read about the subject matter.
  2. Make connections through other modalities or intelligences to the subject.
  3. Provide repeated exposures over time.
  4. For young children - NO DRILLING or overly structured lessons. It's unnecessary & detrimental.
  5. Understand that motivation is central to all learning. If the method is boring, irrelevant & tedious, so will the subject matter be perceived to be boring, irrelevant & tedious, and very little real learning will occur.