Our little Livia was only 2 when she already knew her ABC, 123s, Ps and Qs, shapes, and colours. Her English language is stronger than Mandarin though that’s mainly because she uses Mandarin with her dad whose less at home compared to me who speaks to her in English.
But guess what? We did not teach her any of this nor do we care how fast or slow she learns. The thing is children are naturally curious from birth. From the moment they can move, they are dead set in exploring their environment and if you notice carefully, they use multiple senses to learn. Livia for instance, knows the names of all the basic colours but she is unable to match them to the visual colour for all except orange. She always matches the word orange to the orange colour 100 percent of the time because she eats oranges frequently. I am not surprised if she gets the color right because she can taste it.
The thing is its us adults that kill their natural curious inclinations very early with our emphasis on academics. When we teach little tots ABC and 123 through academic instruction, they do not create their own connections to words and numbers. Instead they are learning it through memory (and yes, they have very good memories). Instead we should be encouraging our babies and toddlers to employ all their senses to learn and the simplest and most effective way is to allow them to play freely.
So a typical day with Livia and the babies goes like this when it comes to how I allow them to learn through play.
After they wake up, while Livia heads to the trampoline to jump, the triplets immediately head to the shape sorter toy. Livia learnt the words ‘jump’, ‘up and down’, ‘higher and higher’, and the concept of ‘balance’ and ‘gravity’ through trampolining. She’s also getting a lot of cardiovascular exercise while she is at it. The triplets, on the other hand, are grasping the wooden shapes, knocking them against the cupboard, knocking the shapes against each other, biting them and feeling them with their hands and mouth. They do not know yet how to sort the shapes, but they are exploring the shapes through taste, touch and experimenting. At the same time, they are developing their dexterity and coordination. Sometime when they turn one, they will start figuring out how to sort the shapes and stack blocks. Livia is obviously already an expert at that, plus playing with Lego and Magnaform which are teaching her about magnets, numbers, measurements, size, symmetry, balance and control. Already before I even get up to make them breakfast, their neurons are firing.
After breakfast, all four of them head to the play kitchen and start taking out all the play cookware and food. While Livia is deeply entrenched in pretend play where she is cooking and offering me and her sisters food to eat, the triplets do the same thing with the play food that they did with the shapes. Mostly biting, feeling, holding and knocking. The way it feels in their hands and in their mouth is probably very different from the wooden shapes. And as they play with each other, they are learning early social skills. Livia being a lot older, knows how to share her toys with her sisters, but the babies are more prone to grabbing toys from each other. In due time, as they get older, they will eventually learn to be more cooperative.
Then its time for the triplets to take a nap and while they nap, Livia usually requests for her Play Doh set, painting set or doodling set. She spends a good hour or so creating and expressing herself through art, learning about colors, and trying to create visuals for the things she sees and feels. After which its time for lunch and she helps me set the table and we eat together where we talk about types of protein, vegetables and fruit that we are having that day. The triplets get up from their nap for lunch as well, and you will hear a chorus of “mum, mum, mum” which means “we want food!”
After everyone has had food, they gravitate toward the bookshelf and start removing books. While the triplets enjoy biting and flipping through their board books, looking at images, Livia usually brings a book or two for me to read aloud to her. Sometimes she reads on her own or reads to the triplet. When I mean reading, I mean she is describing the pictures in the book to her sisters. Through reading aloud, reading independently and reading with each other, even if its just looking at the pictures, they are forming relationships between visuals and language, extending their vocabulary and labelling things they see, thereby acquiring general and increasing knowledge about the larger world around them. Their favourite book is the one on nursery rhymes because there are actions that accompany the rhymes and the babies love it when Livia and I do the actions and read out the rhymes. Through listening to the rhymes over and over again, they are improving their memory, listening skills, and vocabulary and at the same time learning about pitch and sound.
They are pretty exhausted after all that playing and so its time for their afternoon nap which lasts about 3 hours.
Then they get up and its play again. And in the evening it varies. If we are home, the evening is usually dedicated to music, dance and pretend dress-up. I turn on Spotify and we sing-a-long to songs or dance to them and I usually bring out the toy musical instruments for them to play with. I am no dancer, but the kids love to dance and we just make up moves along the way.Through music and dance and playing with musical instruments they learn about rhythm, cause and effect, and effectively developing their listening skills. A particular Barney song about not wasting water helped Livia learn not to leave the tap water running.
Livia also likes to use evening time as a time to play dress-up. We have a whole basket of pretend clothes and I am in the process of learning to sew more of them. Her favourite dress-up material these days is her doll baby carrier. Yes she has a Mei Tai baby carrier and she insists on carrying one doll on her front, and one doll on her back, just like how her dad baby wears the twins. This form of role-play encourages creativity, strengthens their imagination and in the long run, teaches them about empathy because through impersonating they are putting themselves in someone else’s shoes. When they are putting on their role-playing costumes, they are also learning how to wear clothes, how zips and buttons work, how to lace shoes, how to tie scarves and so on and so forth.
If we are outdoors, we are most likely at the waterpark or swimming pool. Not only are they good physical activities that aids in muscular development and coordination, they are also learning about Science as they splash about and experiment with water by touching, scooping, feeling and playing with it. The same goes with playing with sand at the beach. They get soooooo engrossed with the water and sand because they are curious about what the water and sand can do and how nice it feels when they scoop up the sand and it filters through their fingers, or how lovely the way water envelopes around their bodies and the splishy splashy sounds it makes.
Before they sleep, I try to give them less stimulating activities. Reading, colouring, pasting stickers and singing songs about bedtime and sleep are some of the more quieter activities to help them calm down and relax.
Generally, I try to turn every opportunity I can into play. When they are bathing, I place two babies in the tub with toys while I bathe the other. When they are being diapered, I place an object in their hands to look, smell, bite and press. When they are snacking, I place the food into bowls for them to feed themselves, which to them is a form of play. When I am taking a nap and they wake earlier than me, they start exploring the bedroom – opening and closing cupboards, looking at their reflections in the mirror and making funny faces, opening and closing doors, or cruising from wall to wall.
Basically I have never seen any of them take a rest from exploring except when they sleep. The house is always full of noise from all the activities they engage in, and because there are more than enough play mates to go around, I sometimes don’t need to participate at all.
All of this and so many other kinds of activities are helping them learn in very, very complex ways that normal academic instruction cannot fully encapsulate. You don’t even need to buy toys really. Basic household items can replace the toys I mentioned in this post. When we do not give them enough time and space to play, we are effectively robbing them of the opportunity to learn.