Evidence-based Preschool "Curriculum"
September 5, 2016 10:32 AM   Subscribe

What should my two year old learn and how should he learn it?

I have a two year old who is rapidly learning about the world. He socializes with another boy of the same age and he is fascinated by trucks. He can identify pickup trucks, backhoe diggers, cement boom trucks, probably tens of trucks. His language skills are regularly improving and he is constructing more and more interesting sentences (mostly about trucks).

I would love to teach him all sorts of concepts, give him new skills, and teach him about new things in the world. However, I am not really sure what sorts of things he can learn, and I do not really want to stress him out trying to teach him concepts that are developmentally inappropriate. (For example, apparently the concept of two things is actually much easier than the concept of, say, four things.)

Are there good resources for what concepts might be understandable and interesting to a very young child (and possibly how to teach them)? I am mostly looking for either books backed by empirical evidence (I have a book by the American Academy of Pediatrics but the section on each age is relatively brief) or curriculums and/or learning guides designed in an evidence-based way.
posted by pbh to Education (17 answers total) 10 users marked this as a favorite
I think at this age the key is to just talk to him a lot about what you're doing, encourage him to converse with you as much as he can, read to him a lot, and make sure he feels safe and loved. The concepts will come naturally!
posted by lakeroon at 10:45 AM on September 5, 2016 [4 favorites]

From my 3 year old teacher wife:

- colors
- shapes
- letters (but not necessarily reading them except recognizing their own name)
- potty trained (that might be a bit biased because the 3s at her school are supposed to be there before moving up)

She's a bit dry on resources though because her school uses some old as dirt stuff that probably needed an update 20 years ago.
posted by theichibun at 10:46 AM on September 5, 2016

The evidence strongly indicates that children that age learn through play.

The best way to support a young child's cognitive development is to allow them to play in an exploratory way, and to give them your attention as they express curiosity about the world.

You might like this blog:
Janet Lansbury

Teaching concepts in isolation, such as lists of colors, is not going to support a child's development as well as teaching them in context. Going for a walk or doing an art project is a natural way to experience colors. Same thing with numbers - playing with groups of objects in the sandbox or on the floor is much more effective than reciting numbers.
posted by mai at 10:52 AM on September 5, 2016 [12 favorites]

I have a developmental psychology textbook that explains every stage of what kids know and understand vs what concepts they don't get yet. So I suggest picking up ones of those. The library usually has them.
posted by St. Peepsburg at 10:53 AM on September 5, 2016

2nding Janet Lansbury. Your kid still needs to play, not to be taught. Don't make inquiry boring. It's really not possible to be that purposeful yet.
posted by Potomac Avenue at 11:50 AM on September 5, 2016 [4 favorites]

More positively: take them to new places. My kid responds well to stuff like: drive to the mountains, get out and look at the mountains. Take a train. Go to a museum and just wander around. Go to an old building. Go to a botanical garden. Go to Sears and open all the dishwashers. Go to an instrument store and play the drums. Wake up in the middle of the night go outside and look at the stars. Clean out a garage. Dig a hole. Run around the bases in an empty baseball stadium. From what I've read these experiences of self directed discovery are what lay the foundation for a lifetime of curiousity.
posted by Potomac Avenue at 11:57 AM on September 5, 2016 [12 favorites]

Your question reminded me of this previous askme about where to go to watch trucks and constuction type vehicles. I thought it might give you some fun ideas of places to go to see the things he's already interested in and use it to teach shapes, colors, numbers etc.
posted by BoscosMom at 12:45 PM on September 5, 2016 [1 favorite]

I had the mixed blessing of a toddler who spent large parts of the day bringing me books to read to her. Over and over and over. Since many had a "learn your [whatever]!" component to them, I ended up with a kid who knew the alphabet, upper and lowercase, at 15mo, and shapes, colours, and 1-10 were all in place by 16mo.

Since she dug me reading pretty much anything, she could recite Yeats at 2, a Shakespeare soliloquy at 3...

Of course these were fantastic parlour tricks, though I was periodically red-faced because I was worried people would think I had driven my small child mad with flash cards or something. It was only because she kept plonking herself and the books in my lap and I had to read stuff like "Noddy's ABC" three times a day -- it would have been a terrible idea to try to force any of that.

And it was all so silly. The only advantage to any of this was that she learned that being read to was a pleasant thing and that she liked books. That was a very good thing. The advantage to a kid knowing stuff like shapes and colours ahead of schedule is pretty much non-existent. Unless you are a subliterate negligent they will learn it via everyday 'How many red apples should we buy? Six?' Kid is now 9 and has an amusingly huge vocabulary, just from me and other adults not dumbing things down around her -- I've never given her lists of words to study or anything like that.

I'm not sure that avoiding stuff that seems too old is necessary. I certainly wouldn't go around trying to teach a young child something they weren't interested in, but if they're interested, might as well go to town; kids can do amazing things when they are genuinely fascinated by something. At some point around 3 here there was a tremendous interest in lampreys here, and we learned more about the disgusting swimming vagina dentata monsters than I think would've been taught in a middle-school science class. But of course there were many topics she had no interest in.

I am a big believer in child-led learning -- do try to find some non-flaky sources to read about 'unschooling' -- John Holt's books are interesting. "What would you like to learn about?" can mean a lot of boredom for you if you did not particularly want to know more about the world of trucks (does your area do a "touch a truck" event? Very fun; involves all sorts of interesting vehicles parked in one area, and you get to climb on them and talk to their drivers and so on), but it reinforces that learning is a fun thing to do (a pre-determined curriculum often does the opposite), and it gets easier as they get older because you can help them find the information and then, phew, not have to learn about lampreys or trucks or whatever yourself. (There is a cross-sections book on bulldozers and other construction machines; possibly a good buy?)

As others mentioned, the only evidence I'm aware of is: play is good. (And, TV is not.)

I homeschool; in HSing circles most parents read a lot about educating kids, and whenever an eager beaver pokes in to ask what curriculum they should use with a very young child people cringe pretty hard and gently suggest Duplo, etc.

(I managed no screens until almost age two, at which point I, single, developed a knee problem and had to spend a lot of time entertaining a toddler from the sofa instead of going outdoors; I gave up and we discovered YouTube videos. In retrospect I really, really wish I had just let her fuss out her boredom until she found ways to relieve it, and made myself stir crazy by reading yet more Seuss and playing with yet more plastic dinosaurs. The longer you can avoid screens, the better; it is so addictive for them, and most of it is very bad quality.)
posted by kmennie at 2:21 PM on September 5, 2016 [4 favorites]

My 2.5 year old builds her own trains from Duplo blocks and other toy parts. Not because she's ever seen a real steam train, or because she has any patience for silent, motionless drawings of steam trains in books (if you get rid of the noise and motion, you get rid of everything she actually likes about steam trains).

It's because she watched lots of YouTube videos of steam trains, and decided to try it out herself. We let her start watching these train videos while she was going through a serious of scary medical procedures for a scary disease, and I was amazed at how complex her interest in trains became. I know kids often like trains, but she adored trains.

In conjunction, we listened to her interests, and made sure she had stuff to experiment with. She has some of those toys that can be assembled and disassembled with plastic screws, regular wooden blocks, and other building toys. We got her these toys because she showed an interested in building things and taking them apart. We let her decide how she wants to play with them. She uses them to make animal shapes and trains. She learns complementary information while she's absorbed in these interests.

She learned her colors quite a while back, via a drawing app on my older Kindle. In fact, she learned them very rapidly when she was able to choose colors from the palette and instantly draw with such ease. This worked for her almost overnight, when she hadn't shown a lot of interest before.

She's not a screen addict. She learns from her steam train videos, because she is intensely interested in steam trains. She's picked up a lot of knowledge through just this one interest of hers (and she has tons of interests). So my opinion is, let your kid pursue his interests as fully as possible, because he will learn all sorts of extra information at the same time.
posted by Coatlicue at 2:56 PM on September 5, 2016

When my son was 2, I took him to a parent-and-me Waldorf playgroup. It was predominantly playing with toys made of natural materials, but they also let the kids help make the daily bread. The kids also drank out of real glass cups at the table. I hadn't thought of moving past sippy cups at that point, and I hadn't involved my child in any practical skills, so it was eye-opening. It's messier, but letting kids do real things alongside adults is empowering.
posted by xo at 3:17 PM on September 5, 2016 [3 favorites]

Kate Nonesuch's Family Math Fun! is a wonderful free resource [download the PDF here] for play-based early learning activities. I've used this book with my niece and nephew and the activities are enjoyable for both children and adults.

Here's a very good article on the role of play in early STEM education (and general early education) by Dr. Lilian Katz, early childhood learning expert.
posted by hurdy gurdy girl at 4:18 PM on September 5, 2016 [1 favorite]

I forgot to say, Family Math Fun! gives an idea of appropriate activities for a child's developmental level. For example, many of the activity description say things like, "When your child can sit up in the bathtub..." and then lists activities they can do. Or "When your child has an idea of how much a dollar is..." The section on telling time lists some of the questions children ask that indicate they're ready to start learning to tell time.
posted by hurdy gurdy girl at 4:26 PM on September 5, 2016

You might want to look at National Association for the Education of Young Children- they accredit early childhood centers and classrooms. They have a site for educators and another for families

I stayed home with my girls, and we did childcare co-ops with friends. I think exposing kids to peers is a great way to learn. We also would do projects and activities with the kids. One thing to keep in mind is that at this age everything you do with your child is about the process, and not the product.
posted by momochan at 5:42 PM on September 5, 2016

Something that's really important for kids this age is process-based art, which can help not only with specific art-based skills but also hones fine motor skills and helps children develop problem solving skills. Process-based art involves lots of art supplies of all kinds (paints, markers, glitter glue, play-doh), big paper and just letting kids kind of go wild. It's messy and strange and fascinating--my daughter is 2.5 and currently really into painting all of her plastic cars different colors--but really one of the most enriching things you can do with a kid this age. In general, you want to avoid very rigid crafts like you'd find on pinterest that are focused on producing an outcome that looks a certain way. This can have a paradoxical effect on kids and make them more frustrated and perfectionistic, and make art, generally, a lot less fun. And if kids aren't having fun they're going to be reluctant to participate and therefore not get that important fine motor practice in.

Imaginative-based roleplaying is also really important for kids this age. Think less toys that talk, or walk, or perform specific tasks, but rather dolls (good for developing empathy, caretaking skills, and for roleplaying conflicts that play out in their daily lives), doctor kits, play kitchens and workshops and restaurants, playhouses or dollhouses, toy animals or farms, and lots of dress-up clothes. I think trucks are great and important (my kiddo loves cars) but I do think boys sometimes get the short end of the stick when it comes to being introduced to dolls and other gentler sorts of imaginative play. Here's an article about pretend play.

I also wouldn't forget to muck around with music. Provide child-sized instruments for your kid. Sing with him and dance with him. If it's available in your area, my daughter's really thrived in our local "music together" class. Music is great for developing rhythm and large motor skills and even mathematical skills.

As for reading skills: read to your kid, and let them see you read, too. Let them see that reading is an enjoyable activity. That's the best thing you can do for fostering literacy.
posted by PhoBWanKenobi at 10:55 PM on September 5, 2016

Two books about evidence-based parenting:

Nurture Shock by Po Bronson and Ashley Merryman

• The Scientist In The Crib: Minds, Brains, and How Children Learn by Gopnik, Meltzoff, and Kuhl.

Note that neither book is exlusively about two-year-olds, and much of the content is more "Here is an interesting fact about childhood development" rather than "Here is a specific curriculum you can use for each age group"-- but they're both interesting, and I suspect you'll find at least some of the things you're looking for in them.

(Also in addition to the scientific studies others have sited on the benefits of play, I would mention the benefits of reading out loud to your child -- here are a bunch of studies on the topic.)
posted by yankeefog at 1:00 AM on September 6, 2016

one trick is to look at what they're doing that looks a little like bad behavior and realize that's something they need to be doing. for instance, there's a good period of time where a kid's gotta pour stuff from one container into another. it can get messy at the table, but you can make a big "pour" area out on the porch with all sorts of cool stuff to pour (maybe sand, water, soapy water... hmm, can't do beads because of choking, though)
posted by spbmp at 8:07 PM on September 6, 2016 [1 favorite]

Rather late to the game here, but I think the key is, you put a variety of toys, experiences, books, materials, whatever in your kid's environment, and then you see what draws them, and you riff off that.

Examples: My 2 year old and I are reading a book called "Rhyming Dust Bunnies". I am trying to get her to hear the rhymes by repeating them and saying extra rhyming words. She decides today is colors day, not rhymes day, and talks over me to point out the colors. So, I continue to read the words on the page, but instead of saying extra words that rhyme, I wait for her to show me the colors on the page that she knows (red - black - orange - purple - white) and then I show her turquoise and we talk about that.

My 5 year old decides he wants to play in the rice bin. I get him some measuring cups to scoop and pour. After awhile we start doing experiments - how many of this size cup do you need to fill this other one? 4? Oh look!! This cup says 1/4 cup on it! How many 1/3's do you think we need to fill the 2/3? Let's find out!

Also I love the Safari toobs of little animal (and other) models. They're great for all kinds of things. We've hidden them in the rice bin, covered them in a mountain of cheap shaving cream (a blizzard!) and had the kids rescue them, they frequently inhabit the toy castle, and when the moment presents itself we do sorting activities like mammals vs reptiles, insects vs other animals, things that fly and things that don't, etc. You can make conversation by telling the kid something interesting about whatever animal they're holding.

You can totally experiment - if it doesn't catch their fancy, fine! Try something else! Micropanda started wanting to trace things at 2, so starting when Nanopanda turned 2 I'd periodically show her a line and see if she wanted to trace it. Oh, looks like today is a scribbling day! Sure, let's scribble! And then the other day, I gave her a line and she traced straight across and demanded more. She still doesn't seem to want to do letters - so we're doing lines and squiggles and zigzags. Maybe a square? OK, maybe later!

tl;dr: Observe your kid, see if you can catch a wave of interest, and tell (or do with) them something that's related but just beyond their current knowledge level. See if you get a response. If not, table it for another time; if so, see where it takes you.
posted by telepanda at 8:38 AM on September 27, 2016 [1 favorite]

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