I am the auntie in charge of turning the kid into a nerd.
January 7, 2017 1:38 PM   Subscribe

A low-income, uneducated friend of mine is utterly, utterly terrified that her 14-month-old baby will continue the cycle of poverty and become a statistic. Specifically, she wants help ensuring that he learns to read, write, and do math on schedule. Difficulty level: the only time she has to do pre-reading and pre-math activities with him is during their twice-daily 3 hour train commute while she's exhausted.

Many snowflakes here, some details of which I'm reluctant to post online for fear of being too personal, but suffice it to say that her fears are not unfounded at all. The only childcare currently available to her is completely inadequate and neglectful, and won't be reading to him or doing counting games. (She would need to change jobs in order to get him into a real daycare, which she is working on, but it's not so easy when you don't have a GED.) She doesn't trust the schools to handle this, as they've utterly failed her other children. And she's limited in what she can do, not being able to lug books or toys around with everything else she has to bring.

Considering the Finnish Math thread, I was sure I'd be able to find a book with activities that didn't require a stable place, writing, worksheets, etc. (That bit about "find a stick as long as your foot" is certainly something she'd be able to do with him, once he's a little older.) But I'm not sure a book would even be used, so maybe a smartphone app to prompt her and give her ideas?

(Why can't we have the "Young Ladies Illustrated Primer" of sci-fi fame already?)
posted by Soliloquy to Education (34 answers total) 14 users marked this as a favorite
When my kids were little, I kept up a running monologue when traveling with my children as the least amount of effort for keeping them mentally occupied so they wouldn't get bored and squirmy and start behaving badly. I would just basically narrate our trip:

"We are waiting for the bus. This is our bus. It is the number six bus. That signage right there on the bus shows the number six so I can tell which bus is ours.

We are getting on the bus now. Be careful of the steps. I need to pay the fare now. It costs x amount.

Let's find a seat. Oh, look, that is Washington street. There are street signs that tell us the names of the street. The first letter in Washington is a W. Can you point out any other Ws that you see today as we ride the bus? No, that's not a W. This is a W. Try again."

Etc ad nauseum

On subsequent days, maybe get out my fare while waiting and count money and talk about numbers, etc.

I did this solely so my kids would sit still and not be a pain to deal with. Only years later did it become apparent how very much they learned from it.

posted by Michele in California at 2:07 PM on January 7, 2017 [78 favorites]

At 14 months all she has to do is talk to him as Michele says. All those other activities become more appropriate at about 3. In between and through three if she can get to a library and carry a few books to read to him, that will help a lot.

I hope she can lay aside the guilt and just --get through.
posted by warriorqueen at 2:10 PM on January 7, 2017 [10 favorites]

At 14 months, the very best things that can be done to ensure future academic success are exposing the child to experiences and language. Children at this age are little sponges--they absorb everything.
Talk, talk, talk to him. Tell him what you're doing as you do it. Name objects that you see out the window on the daily commute. Name the colors of objects. Count objects. Take him on errands or walks and talk about what you see and do. Sing songs.
Also--read books together. Do you or you friend have access to a library? If so, she can read/look at books with her son during the commute and at home. Try to make looking at books together a daily routine--even if it's just for a few minutes a day.
posted by bookmammal at 2:16 PM on January 7, 2017 [7 favorites]

The baby is young enough that this is fairly easy - a long commute is a good time for lots of "games" that are educational. Kids at this age learn *a lot* from adults talking to them and pointing things out. On the train you have colors, shapes, letters, numbers to point to. This is all age appropriate learning.

This can include:
Where is something red? That's right, the bag is red! What else is red? And so on...
Let's play a counting game. One, two, three, four...
Let's sing the alphabet. A, B, C, D....
(Baby may or may not pick this up right away, so mom might need to do the pointing at first...but the baby is still listening)

Later (at 2+ years) it can include:
Where is the A? Where is the number 2? How many cars are there out the window? And so on.

If she is interested in one book (as many books are hard to carry), I'd suggest a letter book with lots of pictures on each page . This can include the game of: Where is the cat? What else do you see?
Also Richard Scary books are good for this too. This can include: Where is the worm? Where is the teacher? And so on...
(Again, baby might not be super on top of this at first, but will pick it up quickly)

If she is very tired, which I understand, then don't discount possible games on her phone - though the baby may still be too young.

Also, don't dismiss the power of play. One really good toy (lots of weird doohickies on it) and soon also a small animal, dinosaur or doll will also be a good play item for the train.
posted by Toddles at 2:16 PM on January 7, 2017 [5 favorites]

And she shouldn't be afraid to actually try to REST in the middle of their commute...
maybe get into the habit of 1/3 'teachable moments'; 1/3 resting for mom and kid; 1/3 story time that mom or kid makes up and verbally story-tells.
posted by calgirl at 2:19 PM on January 7, 2017 [9 favorites]

14 months is okay to teach colors and numbers. I was about that age when I started talking in sentences, so it's okay to engage the toddler in conversation, as other people pointed out.
posted by roomthreeseventeen at 2:22 PM on January 7, 2017

My parents tell me that when I was a baby they would teach me colors by pointing out and naming the colors of parked cars while walking down the street.
posted by heatherlogan at 2:25 PM on January 7, 2017 [1 favorite]

I came in to suggest that kids of all ages need to see many examples of the adults in their lives reading, for enjoyment and not just drudgery. Magazines, books, PDFs of anything at all, it doesn't matter what the adults are reading.

Reading that is demonstrated as not just a skill, and important to survival, but fun is reading that is exciting.

So if you need gifts for mom, and she is open to it: books, books books. And it really doesn't matter if it's romance novels, sci-fi, or highbrow non-fiction. A subscription to People Magazine is seriously as good as The New Yorker.
posted by bilabial at 2:25 PM on January 7, 2017 [7 favorites]

soliloquy--please check your memail.
posted by bookmammal at 2:28 PM on January 7, 2017

Three hours each way? Absolutely naptime in there. Even if it's one-and-a-half hour each way, halfhour nap in the middle. You can do the sorting and providing maybe, find decent apps and text her about them or maybe even gift them if there's a cost. I would like to suggest Toca Boca apps, they are not overstimulating, non-commercial, etc. They also have a TV-channel (app) and a magazine (online) which I gather is for parents, with ideas about activities, conversation points, etc. It's a scandinavian based company, but the learning should be universal. The apps get quite advanced, but the earlier level ones are things like painting butterflies different colours etc.
posted by Iteki at 2:28 PM on January 7, 2017 [2 favorites]

Perhaps you can also look into on her behalf whether her local area is involved in Dolly Parton's programme to provide free books to kids up till the age of five.
posted by Iteki at 2:32 PM on January 7, 2017 [4 favorites]

My city has a group of volunteers - lots of retired grandparents - which targets schools in low-income neighborhoods for tutoring, reading buddies, ESL learning, summer programming and other enrichment activities. Perhaps there's something similar in her area?

It's been a while since I listened to this This American Life episode, but I remember it talking about how other factors in life play a crucial and poorly-understood role in kids' success at school.

I've also heard a now-successful man say that in high school, though very intelligent, he didn't study or try to go to college because of the difficult environment he was in. He sold drugs, he wound up in jail a time or two. Finally he did go back to school and pursued a career path which seems to be going well.

I'm saying that just to say that future success depends on more than learning to read early etc. If she's keeping him fed and safe and surrounding him with good, caring people, those things are also major contributors to his future success (my opinion as a non-expert in education and life success).
posted by bunderful at 3:06 PM on January 7, 2017 [1 favorite]

(I realize my first suggestion doesn't really apply at the moment, I'm thinking down the road. Good luck to your friend and her kid!)
posted by bunderful at 3:15 PM on January 7, 2017

Math teacher Kate Nonesuch wrote [free, downloadable pdf] Family Math Fun for parents in EXACTLY your friend's position. It's fantastic. I've used it with my niece and nephew.
posted by hurdy gurdy girl at 3:44 PM on January 7, 2017 [5 favorites]

As Michelle said, the best thing to do is engage with the child and teach him how to observe the world. Colors--blue car, red sign; counting--how many buses? Count change and name coins. Language skills--rhyming car-far, cat-hat, etc; know about parts and whole--body parts, exterior and interior, car parts--door, lock, fender, etc. There's so much in the world that we take for granted. Reading is so, so, so important. You don't have to read a book over and over. Make up stories about before and after the book. Talk about the pictures. Have the kid tell you the original story in their own words and make up their own stories about the characters. Have them *read* the book backwards and upside down (absolutely hilarious with some kids.) Read your own book, and let them relax to the flow of the words. You and kiddo can enjoy things like Harry Potter books. Just engage. Remind her, how many kids get to engage with an adult for two whole hours one-on-one? If she gives him undivided attention for only ONE hour a day, that kid is so far beyond what many kids get.
posted by BlueHorse at 4:13 PM on January 7, 2017 [4 favorites]

In addition to everything else, you can think about the larger situation and the context of their lives. If there's something you can do to give her more free time, maybe do that.

One thing you can do is set aside space in your apartment or house for the kid to stay with you as they get older. It doesn't have to be a lot of space - a shelf of books, a few toys, a sleeping bag. I'd often stay with my aunt for a weekend, or my grandparents, and not for any special occasion either. And I'd spend most of the summer with my aunt. Mostly because my parents were lazy, but also because they wanted us to have a lot of role models and expose us to a lot of experiences. And I learned so, so much when I was staying with them.

The aunt I'm talking about wasn't a relative, either. She was a close friend of my mother's. But she acted as an aunt in my life.
posted by Rainbo Vagrant at 4:16 PM on January 7, 2017 [4 favorites]

Can you gift mom some books for this time. Animal sounds, colors, emotions etc. A few strong solids.

Then mix in a few library books. The library has a ridiculous amount of childrens books for free. You as Auntie can get a new 3 every week or two and give them to Mom.

Reading these six books at the start of each leg will be huge for kid. Plus it'll take 20 mins.

All the talk about answers are also great but when I'm exhausted I find it easy and relaxing to read to my toddler. Ad libing may take a touch more of her energy.
posted by Kalmya at 5:06 PM on January 7, 2017 [1 favorite]

I briefly browsed some of the answers, and didn't see anything on singing. Please, suggest SINGING!!! It is not only a bonding experience between mother and child, but there's plenty of research on how music helps to stimulate learning. Sing, sing, SING!
posted by Sunnyshe at 5:11 PM on January 7, 2017 [3 favorites]

One of the big problems disadvantaged kids have is lack of vocabulary because adults just don't talk to them enough. So, Nthing the talking.
posted by SemiSalt at 5:12 PM on January 7, 2017 [5 favorites]

Piling on to reinforce Michelle in California's suggestion with relevant research (that link does not require login). Many people will go back to Hart & Risley on this one, but as it has been mentioned upthread, it is not just the number of different kinds of words used with children, it is engaging them in conversation and engaging them in productive and challenging (for them at their level) conversation. I heard James Paul Gee speak at one point and he mentioned a funny story: he was in a museum wherein he heard a very young child ask his father about the steam engine at which they were looking. The father proceeded to give a very detailed and completely wrong explanation as to how it worked. Gee said it really didn't matter at that point. The father was engaging the son in the conversation, asking him to repeat words, and asking him direct questions about the engine. [Interesting Gee piece here]
posted by oflinkey at 5:18 PM on January 7, 2017 [3 favorites]

This study suggests that (1) talking to children (especially using a rich, adult vocabulary) and (2) offering encouragement and praise rather than negative feedback seems to have a powerful impact. I remember reading about a follow up study that confirmed that getting low-income families to interact more produced measurable learning benefits for their children.

So, advice to the mother is that first, just talking to her children about what they are doing together (like the examples given above) is much more helpful than it seems. You don't to explicitly try to teach colors or numbers -for example, talking out loud while making a shopping list can be teaching about planning, cooking, things that go together, social skills about thinking about what other people like or dislike, the idea of making lists, what words look like written down and so on.

The second is make on effort to notice what the toddler is paying attention to and talk about that or ask questions that engage the child's interest. Learning that grown-ups care about what you think is very, very powerful. Getting enthusiasm for knowing things and encouragement to try again when you don't is also very powerful. if this isn't natural to her, maybe you can spend some time with her and the child and first model and then coach her in how to have more positive interactions. The study I remember had people doing this kind of coaching - if I can find a link I will come back and post it.
posted by metahawk at 5:22 PM on January 7, 2017 [4 favorites]

Oh, and video games, seriously.
posted by oflinkey at 5:26 PM on January 7, 2017 [1 favorite]

I had a great head-start in reading because my mum labelled everything in our house.
posted by bonobothegreat at 5:38 PM on January 7, 2017 [5 favorites]

Considering the Finnish Math thread

Off topic, I know...but could someone please provide a link to this thread the OP referenced, which I must have missed? I searched and didn't find anything recent.
posted by barnoley at 5:46 PM on January 7, 2017 [1 favorite]

Tons of great ideas above. I would also suggest reading chapter books out loud on the transit ride. One of my fondest memories as a kid is of read aloud time -- apparently it kept me occupied while my mom was nursing my younger sibling from age 2 on (although obviously I don't remember it from when I was 2!) This would introduce lots of good vocabulary and a general value of reading and books, but maybe less exhausting than playing games and keeping up a running dialogue (those things are awesome, but maybe hard to keep up consistently for three hours straight -- I know I find it tough when I'm babysitting and like being able to fall back on reading where you can just read the words on the page and sort of tune out). Bonus, one chapter book is smaller and will take longer to read than lots of picture books.
posted by rainbowbrite at 5:52 PM on January 7, 2017 [1 favorite]

The original study I linked to was very small sample and the results got overblown in the press but later research seems to uphold the basic concept that talking with kids, in a positive and engaging style seems to be a powerful predictor of success in school later.

My own observation has been that social readiness like "I can learn things" "Grownups are good and want me to succeed", a sense of curiosity as well as taking turns, sitting and thinking, following instructions are more important than specific content like knowing how to read.
posted by metahawk at 6:13 PM on January 7, 2017 [3 favorites]

Michele in CA answered your question in spades, especially considering his age. Maybe add a tablet (i.e., endless supply of books in a portable format) in the next year or so?

This may not be news to most folks, but I recently learned that Android tablets are surprisingly affordable, e.g., less than $50 for a 7" Amazon Fire, although I decided to buy a Lenovo with a 10" screen for about $85.

Granted, "affordable" is a relative term and she may not be able to squeeze "tablet money" from her current budget. Perhaps friends can pool resources on her behalf.

In the meantime, do as Michele says and just keep talking (and singing) to the baby.
posted by she's not there at 6:17 PM on January 7, 2017

Hm. I grew up in rural poverty, with no daycare or preschool. We definitely had lots of books around the house because I was the first kid and liked to read early, so my grandmother bought me lots of Babysitter Club books from garage sales. Engaging in conversation seems to be the consensus right now in the research.

I've seen the cycle of poverty derail smart, studious kids before, too. Keeping up with what they should know by grade level is a big deal, but there are a lot of things that do or don't happen outside of the classroom that affect outcomes and social mobility. I think a lot of people who haven't experienced poverty have the impression that it's all about education, when really a big part of being middle class is... do people have high expectations of you? Do they have good advice for you, can they address your fears and concerns? Can they provide resources for you to learn independently about things that strike your interest? Is there intellectual engagement at home? Does everyone talk about "education" like some kind of vaguely good inscrutable commodity, or do they take an active interest in what you're learning? Do you get to travel? If you're interested in a book or film or piece of music, do you have access to it?

Maybe most important as they get closer to college level, does your education make you feel more remote from your family and community? Do the mores of the educated or professional class to which you will eventually belong make you feel alienated from your roots, and does this induce guilt and introduce the temptation to drop out? Does material success make you feel guilty or dirty, and will there eventually be a crisis point where you're overwhelmed by lived experience of the gulf between working and middle class?

It's a lot and it sounds intimidating maybe to a person who is worried about their baby but these are the kind of... unspoken assumptions about your background when you transition from poverty to middle class. I don't think there is really a substitute for individual engagement, but it doesn't all have to be math and spelling drills.
posted by stoneandstar at 6:26 PM on January 7, 2017 [11 favorites]

Oh, we also had a computer and were early adopters of the internet and I wasted a lot of time and saw a lot of porn but I also spent a lot of time reading and writing blogs, which was probably very good for my reading and writing skills, not to mention technology skills (I'm a programmer now). So some kind of internet-connected technology at home can be good.
posted by stoneandstar at 6:28 PM on January 7, 2017

I learned how to read at 4-1/2 years old, largely by watching Sesame Street and the Electric Company (this was in the 70s). PBS has always been great at providing free educational programming on TV, and now online. I was also blessed with parents that provided books and answered questions. Talking, like many others have mentioned, is a huge source of early learning. Tell your friend to talk to her kids (not just the baby), show them things in the world around them. Teach them as they grow to read street signs and billboards, how to figure out prices, etc. My mom said she knew something was up when my toddler voice piped up from the back seat: "What does P-I-G-G-L-Y W-I-G-G-L-Y spell?" I didn't have fancy computers or tutors or expensive preschools. Just a natural curiousity about the world around me, which is free to all.
posted by jhope71 at 9:40 PM on January 7, 2017 [1 favorite]

Please, please make sure your friend knows that it is always, forever okay to answer a question with "I don't know, LET'S FIND OUT". My family of origin was relatively formally educated but you can't know everything, and one thing a basic education gives you is that understanding that there's more out there, and here's how to find it. Whether it's Googling any basic question or asking a librarian for help or talking to a mechanic/bus driver/postal worker/barber to find out why something is the way it is, your friend can help her child navigate the world by modeling the asking of questions. I assure you this is not annoying, people really don't mind talking to children about their work.
posted by padraigin at 9:49 PM on January 7, 2017 [12 favorites]

As you are hearing, a lot of the advice is pretty simple: words and books. Two paperback picture books or two board books are pretty light and can be read over and over. The repetition is good for kids anyway. Reading should be pleasant and fun. I'm wondering if there might be podcasts or audio books they could share that could help.

Do friends have enough resources to help this mom mitigate 6 hours of daily commuting? Perhaps by providing healthy meals at home when they end their day?
posted by bluedaisy at 10:43 PM on January 7, 2017 [1 favorite]

I'm coming to this a bit late, but I was talking about this with my husband who studies developmental psychology, particularly math learning in small children. He feels strongly that there is no need to do anything fancy -- the most thing is to talk to kids, and to listen when they talk to you. So the answers above that say to use that time to talk about what she sees, to count things, to name things, and to make an effort to understand when he uses words back. Once you get in the habit it will develop as the child gets older, until you are having real conversations about what you see and what is around.

For math specifically, my husband told me about a study showing that the amount of "numbers talk" that very small children hear at home is a major determinant in how they do in math classes in school later. Numbers talk is very simple at this age -- counting, "how many of X do we see?", "this one is big, that one is small!". Even someone with a lower level of education can do this, it is a matter of consciously thinking about incorporating numbers, sizes, quantities ("lots!", "only one"), and shapes into conversation.
posted by ohio at 8:29 AM on January 8, 2017 [3 favorites]

Maybe send one of the Shel Silverstein poetry books? A little kid would like the silly pictures and the sound of the rhymes, and once they start to understand jokes they will want them over and over -- which is a good incentive to read!

My kids (esp. the boys) read the hell out of those books, and very often asked for them.
posted by wenestvedt at 11:09 PM on January 8, 2017

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