Preschoolers are busy, busy, busy— and no wonder: these are peak years for learning, as kids’ brains undergo huge anatomical and physiological changes. Here’s what you need to know about these years of rapid growth and development—and tips to enhance it.
1. Preschool kids are hungry for knowledge.
Between ages three and four, learning accelerates at race-car speed, as your child learns more about himself and his environment. By now he can recognize, name, and describe toys and other objects, using words like big/small and red/blue/green/yellow. He also understands there is an order to his day: he goes to school (or daycare) after breakfast; he eats dinner at night—and before bedtime, he takes a bath and hears a story. To boost learning: Offer activities, materials, and experiences that spark interest and curiosity. Read engaging books, visit exciting new places, experiment with blocks, puzzles, and art materials.
2. Vocabulary and language skills are on an uptick.
Until about age five, kids’ brains are very receptive to new words. Or palabras, or mots: they can easily learn a second or even a third language at this age while they gain even more skill in their native language. At age two, kids usually know about 50 words. Three years later, their vocabulary will be in the thousands, and they’ll string together long sentences and stories. To boost learning: Use words—lots of them. Talk to your child interactively, sing with her, read aloud, and page through picture books together. Answer those “Why?” questions as best you can. Use an animated voice when you chat or narrate a story; it helps your child distinguish new sounds and words better than a monotone delivery.
3. Practical and problem-solving skills are rapidly developing.
Preschool kids’ brains are ready to start counting, sorting, and measuring—fundamentals they’ll use again in elementary school. They’re also starting to understand directional words, like up, down, in front of, and behind, and are beginning to use art materials appropriately. About three-fourths of a preschool kids’ brain cells are in the part of the brain that controls language, math, memory, and problem solving. To boost learning: Let kids help with everyday activities, like setting the table or sorting the laundry; practicing these skills and having a routine creates a foundation for learning about time, sequence, and planning. Art projects and manipulative toys (like blocks and puzzles) strengthen fine motor skills and stimulate curiosity about how things (crayons, markers, glue, and so forth) work and when to use them.
4. Preschool brains need emotional support—and time for rest.
Nurturing your child is important at every age, of course, but researchers have found that caring especially counts in the preschool years. Because kids’ brains are growing and developing so rapidly right now, they are extra sensitive and responsive to support and encouragement from parents. To boost learning: Show love through cuddles and kind words and keep your cool during stressful situations—say, reassuring your child that you will look at his drawing as soon as you turn off the stove, and then following through. Also, set aside plenty of time for shut-eye during the preschool years, even if your child thinks he’s over napping. In studies, kids who slept after learning new information retained info better than kids who skipped snoozing.