Five Essential Skills


Becoming a first-time parent can be a daunting task. As soon as you master one set of skills, such as burping or changing diapers, a new skills are soon required, like feedings with baby foods. In the middle of taking care of your baby's physical and emotional needs, their brains are growing at a tremendous rate. At around five years your child is expected to know their numbers, the alphabet and other foundational skills before they walk into kindergarten.

How does a parent or caregiver prepare their child for school?

Babies and children can prepare for learning through five basic interactions - talking, singing, reading, writing and playing. These interactions are best done with other adults and children, especially parents. This learning can be done anywhere and at any age.

Playing Activities

Children learn a lot about language through playing. Play helps a child think in symbols, so they understand that spoken and written words can stand for real objects and experiences. Play also helps teach children how to express themselves and put thoughts into words. Something simple activities like tossing a ball or playing with stuffed animals is a great time to learn new words, or play word games. Perhaps every time you catch the ball you say a different color, or use the toys to tell a story. Let your imagination and even humor lead you into new directions.

How does the Library help with play?

Libraries are great places to bring babies, toddlers and preschoolers, because we have space to explore, and items for play. The South Irving Library expanded the Discovery Zone area on the second floor to create an environment specifically for parents and children to play together and learn. Several times a year the South Irving Library offers a play-based program, Discover with Me, taking place in the library's Program Room. Parents or caregivers, and children ages 1 to 3 play with educational toys, including scooters, activity cubes and dress-up clothes. Each week parents can also talk informally with local child development experts in the fields of literacy and play, language development, nutrition, safety, health and child development.

Talking Activities

What's easier to do than talking? The words we say have profound powers, and babies are sponges when it comes to listening to language. As babies hear words, critical brain development is happening, and we hear the result as they begin talking around year one. Here are talking activities you can do with your child every day:

Activities for Infants and Toddlers

  • Talk to your baby about what your doing, whether its changing a diaper, taking a bath or cleaning up after dinner. Short and simple sentences work best.
  • Say the names of objects around your infant, such as blanket, rattle, and table. Your baby will learn to connect the sound of the word with the object.
  • Talk about what you see and hear. For example, when holding an apple say "Do you see this apple? It's a shiny red fruit."

Activities for Preschoolers

  • Give your child opportunities to use their words by asking open-ended questions. Asking questions like "What did you do with grandma today?" or "Why is kitty running?" encourages your child to say more than a word or two, and begin to explain themselves. Be sure when they answer to be a good listener.
  • Play guessing games like I-Spy, How Many? and Guess Who? These kinds of games are great for car trips and improve a child's reasoning abilities.
  • Go on field trips to new places. Visiting the zoo, the airport, or an open-air market are great opportunities to experience new sights, smells and words to give everyone something to talk about.

Singing Activities

Do you have fond memories of your mother or another family member singing to you as a child? There is mounting evidence that singing plays a important role for development young minds, and even starts before birth. Some scientist hypothesize a parent's signing is the first language lessons a baby receives and is critical for later development.

The sing-song manner many parents engage in with their infant can help strengthen the parent-child bond, and better regulate the baby's mood. Signing to your baby can begin before the baby is born. You may want to rush out and buy music CDs, but don't because the important part of singing at this stage is the direct human interaction that enrich cognitive, language and emotional development with your baby.

Here are a few reasons why you should sing to your baby:

  • Transitions. Having special songs for waking up, eating, taking baths and other activities can help a young child prepare for what's coming next.
  • Teach new words. Young children songs are full of play and many new words. Songs like Wheels on the Bus, or Head, Shoulders, Knees and Toes are both fun and educational.
  • Learning names. Teach your child their name by hearing it in songs you sing. Take a favorite song like Where is Thumbkin and replace words with your child's name.
  • Listening skills. Like reading, singing and music help young children become better listeners.
  • Family fun. Make singing a shared and positive experience by getting older siblings or grandparents involved with singing family favorites.

Want to learn great songs to share with your baby? Every week Irving Public Libraries host storytime programs full of nursery rhymes, stories, music and activities for families with young children. The library also has a great collection of children's music you can check out. Just remember, singing works best when its shared live in person.

Reading Activities

Of the five learning activities parents should use to get their child ready for kindergarten, it's reading that is probably the most misunderstood and complex. From a very early age, parents should be reading to their child daily, teaching the alphabet song and pointing out words in books. But there are many more subtle parts to reading that are just as important to impart.

Building Vocabulary

In the first six years of life, a child learns at a much faster pace than at any other time in their lives. Our five early childhood learning activities (playing, talking, singing, writing and reading) are best for growing the connections in young brains that give children a foundation for learning throughout the rest of their lives. One of the most important cognitive building blocks is learning new words, so exposing your child to an ever-expanding set of words while they are young will set them on the path for academic success. Here are some tips for growing vocabulary when reading aloud:

  • Read books that are appropriate for your child's stage of development. Board books work best with babies and toddlers, who tend to be a little rough and messy. Easy reader books, which typically have four reading levels, work well for preschoolers who are ready to ready along with you. Picture books, with the playful combination of words and images, can often hold the interest of any age audience, even older children, teens and adults.
  • When reading aloud together, point to each word you speak, so your child connects the shape of words with how they sound.
  • Children often have questions when read to, so don't be in a rush. Take time to answer questions during the story, and perhaps ask them questions too!
  • Don't be afraid to be enthusiastic when reading a story. Use funny voices and change your volume (soft to loud) when appropriate.
  • For babies, take time to point out objects and say the word several times (cow, duck, penguin).
  • Toddlers love to hear a favorite story read over and over. These repetitions improve their familiarity with words and how sentences are structured.
  • When preschoolers reach the point of picking out words, have them finish sentences that you start.

The Structure of Books

Books really are a sophisticated technology for transmitting information that's evolved over a few thousand years. Although older children and adults can use books with ease, very young children need to learn and practice the basics of books. When an adult says "Here, help me hold the book and turn pages," they teach their child the conventions of book handling - reading books go from left to right and top to bottom. Pointing and reading aloud the book's title on the cover, then stopping at each page to read words or look at pictures reinforces the parts of a book. Pointing to words, then making connections between the printed word to real-world concepts begins to build the connections for literacy.

The Structure of Stories

Everyone knows stories have a beginning, a middle, and an end, right? Teach your child that many books tell a story, with a sequence of events that moves characters along. When you pick up a book like Goodnight Moon, or The Monster at the End of This Book, ask your child questions like "what do you think is going to happen in this book?" Asking questions as you read the book, like "what do you think will happen next?" or "what would you do if you were Grover?" will get them thinking about stories in new ways and fire their imaginations. Additional activities that reinforce story structure concepts include:

  • Pick a favorite story and ask your child to retell it to you from memory.
  • Browse through an unread picture book, and using picture clues ask your child to tell the story.
  • Using new words your child has learned, construct and tell a new and different story.
  • Ask your child to draw a series of sequential pictures to retell a story. Make captions on each page to create your own picture book.

Storytime and 1KB4K (One Thousand Books Before Kindergarten)

The most important part of reading to your child is making sure they are read to often, even every day! Studies show a habit of reading at home during preschool years lead to higher reading achievement in elementary school, and a greater enthusiasm for reading and learning. The number of words a child is exposed to at a young age is a leading indicator of later academic success.

What can you do to help your child?

First, by attending the library's free weekly storytime programs your child will enjoy activities presented by our professional storytellers, and you can pick up tips on how to read to your child at home that will keep them engaged. Second is to pick up a 1KB4K Reading Log at any of our libraries and start tracking how many books they read. The logs make daily reading fun with activities, and a reading goal to shoot for! It's surprising how quickly your family can pick up the reading habit.

Writing Activities

The final important skill parents can practice with their preschool child is writing, how it works and its connection to reading. Learning to write helps your child connect the symbols they see into meaning, and the skill goes hand-in-hand with learning to read. Around the age of three years, a child should learn how to hold a crayon or pencil, learn to draw basic shapes and begin expressing themselves through drawing pictures.

Writing with preschoolers can be fun, and a little messy! Provide them with basic writing supplies such as paper, crayons, pencils and chalk. Model good writing skills for your child by taking time to draw or color with them. Encourage them to draw pictures that tell stories. Teach them the letters in their name, and then how to write their name. Show your child that writing is all around them, in a grocery list, on road signs and at the stores where you shop. Label your child's belongings with their name. There are many ways you can demonstrate the power of writing words.

The wonderful thing about teaching your child to write is how simple it can be. With a few crayons and a notepad, anytime can be writing time. Some parents might find its not always practical, or the child gets bored with the limited choices. Technology can help. There are plenty of apps for preschoolers to learn how to trace letters using a tablet or smartphone, including LetterSchool (for Apple iOS and Android) and iWriteWords (Apple iOS only). There are also learning tools for around $25, such as the VTech Write & Learn Creative Center, which can provide plenty of writing practice and comes with an attached stylus.

Once your child starts writing, be sure to display their artwork and written words by hanging them around the house. Then ask your child who made the art and take pride when they point to their name!