By Ellen Galinsky
When should I start teaching letters, colors and numbers to my nine-month-old daughter?
First of all, what a wondrous time! Children are born learning and, in these early years, you are laying the foundation for their lifelong learning.
Noting that the brain grows from one pound to its full size in the first five to six years of life, neuroscientist Sam Wang of Princeton University compares brain development to building a house:
A baby’s brain is like a house that’s being built. If you think about all the things that babies have happen to them—we feed them, we love them, we talk to them, they have other experiences with other kids, whatever it is that they encounter—all of those are learning experiences. So, there’s this constant construction project where babies and small children are putting together the basic foundations for who they are going to become later.
Because babies learn so much in these early years—with 700 trillion connections among the neurons in the brain being formed during that time—you’re not alone in wondering when and how to teach kids about letters, colors and numbers.
Even very young children can learn to memorize the names of numbers, letters and colors. What’s important is that they don’t just memorize the words, which they may do to please adults, with little to no understanding of what these concepts mean. When you use everyday moments to help children understand the concepts of colors, letters and numbers, they learn what these ideas mean, and they learn the life skill of Making Connections.
Making Connections is at the heart of learning—figuring out what’s the same and what’s different—and sorting these things into categories. Making unusual connections is at the core of creativity. In a world where people can “Google” information, people who can see connections are able to go beyond knowing information to using this information well.
During the early years, kids learn by touching, tasting and playing with everything around them. Get involved, but let your child take the lead in choosing activities and objects that interest her. Instead of taking over or telling your child what to do, be a guide.
When a parent joins in, we call it “guided play,” and it always elevates the level of play. So, parents shouldn’t feel like they have to stay out and let the kids play on their own—they should join in, but they can’t be the boss. They have to follow the child’s lead and talk about the kind of things that the child is interested in.
This is where you can add concepts naturally, such as letters, colors and numbers. For example, you can say:
Even though your child at nine months is just making sounds as a step into learning to talk, she hears and increasingly understands what you are saying. Over time, she will begin to understand these and other more abstract concepts.
Sam Wang states that the key to learning is play.
Play is where active learning takes place—where the baby is engaged or the child is engaged and just wants more and more of that. As long as that element of fun and play are present, then that enhances learning.
Patricia Kuhl of the University of Washington adds:
As I’ve watched my own child grow, there are various times and various things that light her up. As parents and as caretakers of a whole generation of kids, we have to be tuned into that engagement process.
What makes your baby’s eyes light up? Karen Wynn of Yale University finds that adults promote children’s learning on the deepest level when they tap into children’s passion and enthusiasm, then build on it.
The best way to do that is through back and forth conversations. ‘Take Turns Talk’ are conversations, with and without words.
A series of studies over the past three decades has found that early foundations of knowledge and skills emerge in babies’ first months of life. Elizabeth Spelke of Harvard University describes these as core cognitive capacities that “come online” before they could possibly have been taught, and these capacities need developing.
As amazing as it may seem, babies are born with an ability to grasp many big ideas like numbers, space, objects, even people! These are the foundations upon which children build learning as they grow and develop.
As your child grows into her second year and begins to understand these big ideas even more, don’t be surprised if the learning is uneven. Your child may be able to sing a number song and say all of the numbers in order, but if you ask how many pretzels you are holding in your hand, she may say: “two, five.” Or, your child may get stuck on a certain color. Whenever you say the word color, your child may say: “yellow.” Learning these big ideas takes time, but when learned in everyday ways, they’ll have a much deeper meaning.
Children learn what they see and live, so it’s up to you to create an environment where words, reading, listening and learning are important. Take time in your everyday routines to: