Children around 3 and 4 years of age still have a very limited vocabulary, so their explanations and other cognitive features can’t be really understood by what they say. The question of whether young children comprehend more than what they can express with words, is one that has both intrigued cognitive scientist and perplexed parents. Because of this, today we have vast literature on how children’s gestures provide insight into their cognitive state, their process of learning and how they represent things beyond words.
In 1986, Susan Goldin-Meadow and her colleagues from the Department of Psychology of the University of Chicago discovered that the gestures and movements that preschoolers do in problem-solving situations or while understanding mathematical, abstract or conceptual thinking are correlated with their efficacy and skill at the task. In other words, children use body moments to understand better new things. Drawing from numerous studies and experiments, they state that children’s spontaneous gestures help them work through something they haven’t mastered yet, and are the mechanism they use to point out to adults and caregivers of the things they are understanding without relying only on their vocabulary. This allows the adults to better communicate with a kid at a given moment of a task, and also helps the child to avoid the frustration of not being able to convey something.
According to a 2001 research paper published on the journal Early Childhood Research in Practice, there are many factors beyond a child’s age that are crucial for a positive transition into school environment. Among other things, a kid’s social skills, emotional intelligence, fine and gross motor skills, and positive relationship with his primary caregivers are all important factors that can help with the transition.
Some skills you can encourage right now to support your child’s school readiness are:
• Express emotions, needs and wants appropriately using words instead of acting out.
• Engage in different types of play (play-pretend, free play, etc.).
• Take turns while doing or using something.
• Show interest in forming relationships with others.
• Understand and be acquainted with basic rules.
• Follow directions, and up to three-step instructions.
• Pay attention to others and to the tasks at hand (between 8 and 15 minutes of attention depending on age).
• Show curiosity and interest in learning.
• Have interest in the world, on how it works, and in interacting and problem-solving.
According to the American Academy of Pediatrics and the CDC, between the age of 36 and 48 months, most children can use playdough to make balls, strings and other simple figures, copy shapes like circles, lines and squares, cut across a piece of paper using children’s scissors, put on and off some items of clothing, open jars, open and close large zippers or buttons. These activities involve coordinating many different systems and muscles, and require mastering precise movements using hands and fingers. A great way to encourage the development of your little one’s fine and gross motor skills is mixing the challenge with the play together, something most children are naturally inclined to.
Coloring the pictures in coloring-books or just drawing freely is an excellent activity to help your daughter engage with her physical skills, cognition and creativity. Here are some of the ways in which coloring can help her development:
It stimulates creativity and appreciation of visual similitudes and differences.
It cultivates your kid’s hand-to-eye coordination.
It helps children broaden their vocabulary, as it exposes them (with your help) to the words used to describe lines, colors, shapes, patterns, perspective, etc.
It benefits your daughter’s color recognition and awareness. She is more likely to discern subtle differences in hues if she gets to experience them first hand.
It sets a good base for her to work on her finger dexterity, hand coordination and arm strength.
It provides children with small but challenging tasks, that when completed foster their confidence.
It’s a great vehicle for self-exploration and self-expression when words aren’t sufficient.
Coloring inside the lines a picture helps your kid get a sense of structure, and of the need and benefits of having boundaries.
It requires her to exercise attention to detail and planning, and thus helps develop her executive functions.
As you may know by now, kids learn by observing and then doing. So, because preschoolers have lots of energy and appetite for fun and activating games, here are some ideas on how to encourage your 4-year-old to develop his jumping skills while also getting a daily dose of exercise and playing alongside you:
• Imitate animals and make it a game that also encourages vocabulary acquisition and cognitive skills. You can use pictures of animals and model their movements. Also, help your son respond the next questions, or similar ones.
a) How does frogs move? And do they do sounds? Can you jump like a frog?
b) How do rabbits move? Can you jump like a rabbit?
c) Can you jump like a giant?
d) Can you jump forwards? And backwards?
• Play some upbeat music and dance to its beat. You can encourage your little one to jump in place while coordinating arms to the rhythm of the song.
• When jumping with your child, model the following things:
a) Prepare to take-off by bending knees.
b) Start the movement by swinging your arms back and then forwards to gain impulse.
c) Extend your feet and legs when you take-off to push against the ground.
d) Maintain balance when landing.
Engage in conversation afterwards and discover together which movements your son finds easy, funny, etc. and how he would describe what jumping is.
According to the well-known book Fundamental Motor Patterns, written by Ralph Wickstrom, jumping is a fundamental gross motor skill that involves transferring weight from one or both feet to both feet, with a mid-flight moment in between. We can divide jumping into three separate, yet interdependent, activities: take-off, flight and landing. As a parent of a preschooler, you probably care a lot more about landing safely than the other two steps.
Both horizontal jumping and vertical jumping are used in many sports, games and activities that your energized daughter will soon encounter. However, beyond how practical jumping may prove in a child’s daily life, it is a skill that encourages plenty of her developmental processes, such as visual-spatial coordination, attention, body-memory, core stability and even confidence.
Chances are that at 2 years of age your daughter was already discovering various forms of jumping, most likely forward. During her experiments, her movements may have seemed uncoordinated: she didn’t engage the arms, her the legs weren’t always flexed the same way when taking off, etc. At around 36 months of age, you will see your child’s jumps become increasingly complex. Both vertical and horizontal jumps will engage the full body in the movement. For example, she’ll start each jump by gaining impulse with the arms, and during flight she’ll have them at the sides to maintain her balance. Arriving at the 48 months mark, many children have gained enough strength and motor control to jump confidently up and down small steps, hop on one leg for a couple of seconds, start and land with both feet at the same, and even jump backwards.
The Royal Children’s Hospital states that hand dominance is the consistent preference of one hand over the other when doing the skilled part of an activity, while the non-dominant hand supports the movement. A practical example of this is whenever we are writing something and, while our dominant hand is scribbling with a pen, the other hand holds the paper.
Most children will start to show signs of exploring their laterality around 24 to 48 months of age. Usually by the time they start elementary school, they will have established their dominant and their support hand. If your son hasn’t done that yet and he still switches between hands in everyday tasks, do not force him into using only one hand. Rather, observe and encourage your little one to participate in lots of activities that will provide with plenty of opportunities for exploring hand dominance. Here are some ideas:
Place items around your child’s midline (centered to his bellybutton). This applies to crayons, toys and everyday objects that you’d want him to reach for.
Use hand puppets to play with your little one and let him choose which hand gets to play the puppet.
Make finger paintings.
Have your child help you in the kitchen. He can roll, make balls of dough, cut with cookie-cutters, open and close jars, etc.
Do age-appropriate arts and crafts like beading, weaving, playing with pipe cleaners, etc.
Give praise and feedback.
Encourage your son to finish an activity with the hand he started with. It’s okay if that one hand is getting tired and he wants to have a rest. Do so, stretch and then ask him to continue. While you do these activities talk about which hand is doing do hard work and which hand is helping.
According to the Royal Children’s Hospital, hand preference, laterality or dominance are all terms used to describe a child’s spontaneous inclination towards using one hand more than the other when performing motor skill activities.
This doesn’t mean that one hand does all the work and the other just stays in the background! The non-dominant hand has the very important role of helping with a task by supporting and stabilizing. As you can imagine, this involves the capacity to do independent and yet coordinated things with both hands. Actually, researchers have found that developing a hand dominance is necessary to achieve this asymmetrical bilateral coordination, as it is called by pediatricians.
Regarding laterality and hand skills, a group of researchers from the Baylor College of Medicine published in 2010 an article in the Journal of Hand Therapy. Their findings suggested that good dexterity in the dominant hand predicts also a good dexterity score on a test when using only the non-dominant hand. They also found that there’s a relationship between hand muscular strength and functional dexterity, or how well they accomplish tasks involving precise and complicated hand movements.
Although we might be used to laterality and having a preferred hand to write and do activities with, the establishment of left or right-handedness is a very complex process. In children, this process starts taking place early in their neural development, and usually starts being noticeable around 2 to 4 years of age when a kid’s fine and gross motor skills have developed enough for them to use crayons, scissors or other tools. If you want to encourage your daughter’s laterality development, occupational and physical therapists recommend that when handing her items, you place them in her midline, so that your little one’s brain has a more evident need to select the hand that is going to take over the task of reaching and grabbing something.
According to the American Academy of Pediatrics, manual or hand dexterity refers to a person’s ability to manipulate objects using coordinated hand and finger movements. Having good finger dexterity requires that a child’s skeletal, muscular and neurological systems join together to produce the precise movements needed to grasp, pinch, hold, pull and do other manual movements that we, as adults, use every day without thinking too much about it.
Around 36 months of age, you’ll notice that your son will start engaging actively with the objects surrounding him and will interact with more controlled and precise hand movements. For example, he’ll turn book pages one at a time, mold shapes with playdough and even use scissors and kid-sized tools under your supervision. Here are some activities you can do alongside your preschooler in order to help him further develop his manual and finger skills:
Make pasta necklaces.
Play with playdough. A fun task is creating imaginary animals using the dough and other materials, like pipe cleaners, children-friendly glitter, etc.
Write in sand.
Cut big and hollow shapes in cardboard, and have your children weave wool or ribbon around them. This is great for seasonal arts and crafts, you just need to cut big shapes of hearts or stars.
Practice opening and closing big buttons or zippers.
Do finger painting or, if your child is already dexterous, paint with Q-tips.
Have your child help you when you bake and ask him to cut different shapes using cookie cutters on the extended dough.
Along with gross motor control, balance is an essential skill. We use it every time we maintain any controlled body posture or position: standing up, hopping on one foot, riding a bike, walking or simply sitting without falling sideways. Children need their balance skills for many things beyond their physical actions. Increased mobility and stability of their bodies mean that children between 2 and 4 years of age start venturing more into pretend play alone or alongside peers, they begin playing games that involve sitting (like drawing or coloring) and they start asserting their independence by putting clothes on and off, or using a fork to eat with increased autonomy.
According to the American Academy of Pediatrics, around 36 months of age, most children can seat themselves in a child-sized chair, bend over without falling, climb the ladders in the playground, and even walk on tiptoes for four or five steps without help. Then, approaching 4 years of age, your daughter’s balance skills will be sufficient to let her stand on one foot for at least two seconds without problem. Continue reading →
Between 3 and 4 years of age, your son has already mastered many postural skills of his gross motor control. He is now able to maintain a stable posture when sitting or standing and might be venturing into walking, running and jumping. According to the American Academy of Pediatrics, at around 36 months of age kids develop the muscular control and cognitive skills needed to try more complex fine motor skills, like doing precision hand movements. It might seem that this are two very separated set of skills: one involving locomotion and static control of the torso, and other regarding various forms of manual abilities (like doing the pincer grasp, picking small objects or being able to hold writing instruments in an ergonomic way). But in fact, posture control and manual skills are closely related!
If you watch your preschooler doing precise manual tasks, you’ll notice that he needs to be either sitting or standing upright in order to color, write or play on any surface. This is one way to observe the connection between posture and hand skills. In 2014, a team of psychologists from the University of Leeds in the UK published an article in the journal Experimental Brain Research in which they looked into this relationship. They studied preschooler’s stability in sitting and their manual abilities, and they found a strong association between both skills. They found that after 3 years old, and regardless of age, a kid’s posture control accounted for as high as 10% of his performance in hand-tasks.
Although we measure a child’s development by looking at specific skills within a developmental area, these findings shed light on how, in fact, most skills are complexly interconnected, and that nurturing one particular skill will be beneficial for many others! So, next time you are working with your little one in encouraging the development of one skill, remember that your efforts are helping multiple areas and skills simultaneously.