Most of the skills that a child will need to succeed in school are actually learned before he or she enters the classroom. School builds upon these skills, enhances, refines and expands them, but the classroom does not lay the groundwork, which must come before a child enters the classroom. At least that is how the system is supposed to work. Because my students are all young mothers and because most of their children will enter the New Haven school system, it is incumbent on our school to make sure that the young mothers are able to teach their children the skills needed to be ready for Kindergarten. That preparation is the goal of this section of the unit.
In teaching this section, the goal will be for the students to put together a book to be used with their children. The students will be asked to select a target age for the audience of their book. The students will, then, figure out what the skills the brain is ready to explore at the age. Those skills will form the basis of the topic of the book, which will be designed to teach those skills to a child. In a paper that will accompany the book, the students will have to explain the skills they are trying to teach and explain how their book teaches those skills. They will also have to explain what other skills might be appropriate for their chosen target age, what skills would have been learned before and what skills might build on those they are trying to teach.
Another possible assessment strategy for this section might be to have students come up with a developmental timeline of skills a child should have as they grow. I would be somewhat reluctant to do this particular activity with my own students simply because I would hate for them to become unduly concerned about their child's development if it is a bit slower than the norm; however, I think this activity would probably work quite well in a regular classroom setting.
Motor skills develop early in life and are among the first tested to measure infant development. Some early milestones include suckling, pupil dilation and contraction, grasping objects, lifting and turning of the head, sitting, manipulating objects, crawling, standing, and walking. The use of muscles becomes refined throughout life. Anyone who has seen the difference between a toddler's gait and an adult's can see that there is great improvement in muscle control that happens between the two stages. (Cools et al, 2009)
However, muscle control goes beyond simply movement. Fine muscle control is necessary for much of a child's later education. Writing, for example, is essential for education. The difference between kindergarten handwriting and high school hand writing illustrates the gradual improvement in fine motor control that occurs between the ages of five and eighteen. Many of the muscles used for suckling are later used to form words or playing wind instruments. The regions of the brain that are used by toddlers to manipulate objects are later used by children, and in some cases adults, to mentally rotate objects as one might do for geometrical or architectural problems. (Nelson, et al, 2006) As a child develops, the gross or more generalized movements become more refined with use as the muscles become specialized for various tasks. So, while a kindergartener might be expected to write his or her name, they could not do so without the basic gross motor skills needed to hold the writing implement.
Since, my students are preparing their children for our future kindergarten classes, my goal is to focus on some of the basic motor skills a preschool child ought be have accomplished before school. The skill that tend to be tested on the movement assessment tests included in Cools et al include locomotion, stability and balance, object manipulation, including throwing, rolling, catching, and hitting balls, reflexes, fine motor skills, grasping objects, bilateral coordination, and strength. Most early childhood development texts will elaborate on these skills, as well. (Cools et al, 2009)
One way for students to introduce these skills in a book might be to ask the child to point at objects in illustrations. For example, the text might read, "the dog is playing with a ball, can you point to the ball?" The child could then point to the ball in the picture. Alternatively, hook and loop closures over pictures, spinning dial, buttons, and other interactive features can be used to enhance motor skills. It might be a good idea to look at some children's books with the students to analyze what features might be adapted into their own creations and which adaptations are appropriate for various age groups.
Language is an essential part of human culture. Every human culture uses a language of some sort. While other animals such as elephants and cetaceans certainly communicate using auditory pathways, no other animal appears to communicate with the degree of complexity that we do. As language is so essential to being human, it is not surprising that many of the prerequisites for language, such as hearing, seeing, and auditory pattern recognition are present even before birth. Language is also quite complex in that it requires the use of several parts of the brain to function. As noted above, the muscles that are first used for suckling are later used to form words in speech. However, children learn to speak by imitating what they hear, so auditory pathways are also essential for language.
Infants, even before they are 6 months old react to the sound patterns in language. They react to sound patterns in all languages, not just the one that is predominantly spoken around them. However, as they grow accustomed to one predominant language, their ability to recognize speech narrows to focus on the patterns in the predominant language so that by 12 months infant focus on the sound patterns in their predominant language. By 2-3 months children can differentiate between speech going forward and speech going backward. This is not to say that children can not learn other languages, it just means that it takes a bit longer for children to learn the new language patterns. For example, 3-6 year old children can learn to recognize speech patterns in a non-native language after 2 months of training. The brain appears to treat sign language as it does spoken languages. Finally, language appears to be most easily acquired before adolescence. So, in guiding students working on their books, I would recommend focusing on language in the books which would emphasize repeated sounds, so rhymes and alliteration might be good concepts to introduce with the language component of this unit. (Nelson, et al, 2006, Ch. 4)
As it appears from the cognitive development books that children learn language by learning sound patterns, sound patterns are probably a good way to teach language. As the students write their books, it will be important to consider the words that are used in the text. Word sets with repeating sounds, such as alliterative language or rhyming words would be a good place to start. This may one reason why so many nursery rhymes and children's songs have been used to introduce language to children.
The field of mathematics is composed primarily of spatial awareness (and the observation of objects in space) and logic. These two skills seem to develop much later in life than the language skills do. However, there are aspects of these two fields that do begin to develop in young children.
Children as young as 8 months appear to begin to recognize patterns, such as general face shapes. However, they do not yet appear to be able to distinguish between faces. This is not to say, however, that they do not distinguish between people. From my own observation of the infants in our school's daycare, children as young as 3 months will show a distinct preference for people they recognize. However, they may be using non-pattern based cues like scent to differentiate between people. By four years old, however, children can reproduce patterns, with both local and general features. This ability is a necessary prerequisite for learning to write, both letters and numbers. It is also necessary for learning to recognize geometric shapes and to count objects.
While children, even as young as 4 years old can recognize and reproduce patterns, their brains do not process patterns in the same way as an adult brain. Children tend to process patterns on both sides of their brains rather than processing in a more specialized region as adults do. The do not process patterns in a fully adult manner until about age 14; although as young as 7, they do begin to process global patterns in a more adult-like manner.
Spatial cognition is not limited to patterns, and mathematics, particularly advanced mathematics like geometry, tend to rely on the ability to rotate object mentally. This is a skill that most children do not acquire until about age 10-12 years. Even then, children tend to use the parietal lobe to process the information while adults tend to use the frontal lobe. Occasionally, the motor cortex is used by both groups as well.
In teaching this section to students and presenting information for use in their books, I would recommend focusing on pattern recognition, but mostly for older (closer to kindergarten) children. Faces work very well for young children, as human children seem to be instinctively drawn to faces, even from a very young age. Older children may also be able to begin counting simple objects.
Finally, because logic tends to be processed in the frontal lobe, it is one of the last skills to develop. The frontal lobe is not fully myelinated, hence not fully functional, until about the age of 30. That puts most of the increase and improvement in logic toward the end of high school and into college and the early years of a career, hence, beyond the scope of this unit.
Most other skills need for school are built upon math and language skills. Even the social skills needed for appropriate social interactions are built upon pattern recognition needed to identify positive and negative reactions to a particular action, linguistic cues, and an understanding of the logic of the rules of a society. No skills acquisition would be possible, however, without memory. Memory appears to function, at least short term memory, from birth or possibly even shortly before birth. However, it is difficult to test in very young infants because they lack the motor skills needed to respond to stimuli.
In teaching this to my students, I plan to remind them again, and again, that memory is most strongly built upon repetition, so if they wish their children to acquire and retain a skill, the skill will have to be taught and practiced. This concept, of course, also holds true for our students, too. Good luck!