For many of us, the first day of the year is not January first, but a surprisingly balmy September day, the first day of school. No matter how many years it's been since we left those locker-lined corridors, we still have the urge to sharpen pencils, buy new shoes and get down to doing our very best once Labor Day has passed.
This is especially true for those of us who have children who attend school. In addition to buying our kids new clothes and school supplies, we vow to help them begin this fresh new year with our optimum support. We coax them back from the lingering nights of summer to a regular bedtime. We reintroduce the concept of a balanced (no more toaster pastries) breakfast. We may even go so far as to place restrictions on the television set and establish a routine homework time. But is there more that we could be doing to get our kids off to a fresh start? Absolutely.
In the same way we gave our children early learning experiences, we can continue to provide the academic supports -- structures or scaffolding if you will -- for our children to build on when learning in school.
What most of us don't realize is that learning time at home need not look like learning time at school. In fact, learning is often more meaningful when it's spontaneous and connected to actual life experiences. Instead of setting up a "teaching time" at the kitchen table each evening, you simply need to establish a few new and creative routines that can easily fit into regular, albeit full, days. By adding some simple routines, you will not only be giving your child a tremendous boost towards learning, you will be enriching your own life and the quality of time spent with your children.
Here are a few suggested routines. Pick and choose the ones that suit your family and living style.
- Establish a regular reading time. Whether your child is six or in sixth grade, the way that you can support her reading development is by reading aloud to her. Choose books that are slightly above your child's independent reading level. You will help build her vocabulary and understanding of new concepts. You'll also model the love of books for lively stories and fascinating information. You'll have fun.
- Post a bulletin board. Divide it into three or more sections. Place a family calendar in one section. Keep a second section open for all of those notices and menus from school. In the third section, encourage your family to exchange notes, post poems, quotes or comic strips on a weekly basis. You can even place a word of the day in that section and challenge everyone to learn its meaning before dinner. (See if your kids have learned the word by having them use it in a sentence.) The family bulletin board encourages children to use reading and writing skills. Your children will make important observations about print and feel more at home using written language.
- Participate in a daily math challenge. Don't limit your problems to computation exercises or traditional word problems. Instead, have family members estimate how many times they go up and down the stairs in a day. Or how many times they open the refrigerator. Post tally sheets to record and test predictions. Or have your family come up with the best way to compare the volume of two different shaped food cartons. Thinking of the challenges are almost as fun as finding out the answers. Encourage your kids to think up challenges, too.
- Make breakfast dates. Enjoy your morning meal with one child at a time, at your own table. Educators have long known the power of talk in all learning and encourage parents to find more opportunities to converse with their children. If the family dinner is awash due to sports, clubs and evening meetings set a specific time to sit and talk with your child over cereal. Giving your child your first slot of the day will let her know that she does indeed come first.
- Begin dialogue journals. Buy a small notebook for each of your children. Encourage them to write you notes about anything and everything on their mind: what's happening in school, how they feel about subjects they're learning, questions that have gone unanswered. Make sure you write back to them on a regular basis. You can answer questions and share learning or social strategies that you know. Be open and nonjudgmental in your answers and resist talking about these subjects aloud if you can help it. If you keep the topics to the dialogue journal, your children will be apt to share more, more often.
- Reading, writing, exploring and talking together can go a long way is showing your children how much you value education -- and their ideas. So as your head turns to a new school year, sharpen your pencils, tuck in that new shirt, and set out to introduce a new learning routine. Call it your new school year's resolution.