How do you awaken a child's imagination and lay the foundation for later learning? With simplicity. The hottest toys on the market, the latest videos, or newest fad rarely have learning in mind. Rather, most children quickly exhaust these over-marketed items with their limited capacity for imaginative play. If you want the most bang for your buck, hearken back to yesteryear for better ideas for your childs toy box. Here are some of the enduring items that occupied my kids and their friends for hours and spanned many years of use.

Puzzles: Puzzles are an excellent way to build your child's analytical powers. Analysis, according to Bloom's Taxonomy of Higher Thinking, is the ability to break a whole into its parts and to understand the relationship between those parts. When I conduct my study-smart strategies for high school students, I use jigsaw puzzles to illustrate my point. By looking at the picture on the box (the whole), we then are able to analyze all the little pieces in front of us and progressively discover how they all fit together. We might start by sorting out the border pieces, and then working on an area of common colors, and so on, until the puzzle is complete.

These are the same strategies students will use over and over again once they reach their formal learning years. At our house, we completed hundreds of puzzles in graduated levels of difficulty over the years. I'm sure my preschoolers never suspected Mom had any other intention other than having fun. One family tradition we had was to buy a new puzzle to take on vacation with us or to family holidays. With everyone working on it together, the younger kids were able to tackle a more difficult level and to develop more sophisticated strategies for putting the puzzle together.

Strategy Games: My husband, Kermit, brought this tradition into our marriage. He grew up playing cards with his family many evenings. And he also was a champion chess player in school. I've never come to love strategy games because (and here is my pride coming through), I've never been able to beat Kermit at any of them. He taught our kids to play strategy games very early. Other than reading aloud to them, it was probably his favorite past time. In my reading of educational research, I discovered that strategy games were being used in the classroom to improve students thinking skills. One study I read found that teaching a group of inner city kids to play chess improved their grades across the board. Their attention span increased, their reading scores went up, and their math grades improved. I realized I was seeing this in my own kids as well. Kristen could play a sophisticated card game with her grandparents, siblings and Dad for several hours and be competitive even before she could read.

Besides chess and cards, we enjoyed Othello, Chinese checkers, Rummicube, Abalone Stratego, Battleship, and Monopoly. Of course, my favorite game is Charades, and I maintain there is some educational value inherent in that as well.

Dress-up: Imaginative play is one of the most important foundations for learning. One thing that delighted me about my children and their home-school friends was how long into childhood they continued with make-believe. I was fairly certain had they been in a traditional school setting, they would have given this up much earlier. Societal pressures really force kids to leave childhood behind prematurely.

We had a trunk of dress-up clothes in our basement. Some of these were out-dated apparel from Kermit and my wardrobe. A couple of costumes we did purchase. We had hats, jewelry and shoes from garage-sale hopping. And my mom made several colonial skirts, vests and bonnets that we used in countless plays. This trunk yielded up hours and hours of make-believe. The only thing I had to do was to remember to periodically throw everything in the washer for a thorough cleaning.

I dont believe in a lot of formal instruction and seatwork until after third grade for many kids (some are ready sooner, I concede). In most cases, I think far more brain development occurs during the hours kids spend conceiving and executing homemade play after homemade play. Adult responsibility in this scenario is minimal. We just need to be the enthusiastic audience at show time.

In His Sovereign Grace,

Debra
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