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I read the question from parents often: “What is your favorite app for…” teaching your child to recognize letters, count, learn sight words, or identify shapes and colors. Trick question, my favorite app is real life. It’s free, low tech, infinitely flexible and it works a lot better than any digital tool I’ve ever found.
I’m not anti-technology, and (don’t tell the American Academy of Pediatrics) I’m not even sure how much screen time my preschooler gets. He watches videos on YouTube (his latest request has been videos about food chains, but he also likes the channel King of Random for weird science demonstrations). He has a tablet and we do have some games that I don’t mind. We read ebooks on my phone or his tablet and he plays some computer games with my husband. His pointing and clicking skills are really coming along, but that’s not something I was worried about, to be honest.
There are plenty of apps in the app store for pre-reading, early reading and early math skills. But if your concern is that your child’s skills aren’t where they need to be, don’t go to the tablet. Put it away and give them your time instead.
Skill-building activities for the family
Read – Reading to children builds their vocabulary and their love of stories. It also teaches them about the world and helps them learn how books work, so they will be ready to learn to read when the time comes. If your preschooler knows their letters, send them on a hunt to find the letter t or the letters t-h-e on a page of a book. This helps to develop their understanding that print is an important part of book pages as well as helping them begin to recognize letters and words.
Draw – Drawing with kids helps them practice important motor skills, but also promotes language development. Ask them what they are drawing. Let them tell you what they want you to draw. Negotiate who gets what colors. Ask them what kind of paper they want and where they want to draw.
Write – Lists, cards, letters, stories. Sometimes this comes out of drawing, when kids want labels on their pictures. Other times, you can invite your preschooler to sit down with you while you make a shopping list or address Christmas cards and see if it inspires them to write.
Play – Put away the complex toys with batteries and noises and only one “right” way to play with them. Take out something simple like cars, or animals, or dolls, and see where that goes. Teach your kids a simple game like Simon Says or Freeze Tag to help them develop executive functioning skills.
Be active – Take a hike, ride bikes, or go to the playground. Lots of physical play helps your child be strong and well-coordinated, which is the foundation for success in school.
When you need to use technology
Into every life, a little laundry must fall. And some dishes. And cooking meals. And long car rides. And waiting at the doctor’s office. For a lot of families, technology is a great tool for helping your child get through those boring moments when you just need them to be safe and let you concentrate on a task.
And here are my favorite apps and activities for those moments:
Libby – This app works with the Overdrive ebook and audiobook system, available through many public libraries. There are many “read-along” picture books that have a narrator reading each page to the child. These were great for bedtime stories when I was pregnant and exhausted, too.
Google Keep – I use this app for EVERYTHING. But my son loves the drawing capability. I don’t have any apps specifically for him on my phone, but if all else fails and we’ve been waiting too long for dinner, or I need to talk to the pediatrician without his input, I open up a blank note and let him doodle.
Teach Your Monster to Read – I think I paid $4.99 for this one. It does a nice job of introducing letter sounds in a game format, but my son found it too hard to navigate at 3.5, and boring by the time he was 4. Not a bad app and very popular, just not a good fit for him.
PBS Kids – My son loves the variety of games available on this app. I’ll be honest, I don’t know what he’s doing once he gets into the app, but I trust PBS Kids.
There are other apps, free and paid, that are decent ways for kids to spend their time. But I make a point of keeping his tablet limited to just a few at a time because otherwise it’s too tempting for him to stare at the screen all afternoon! As it is, he’s usually a little bit bored by the time his sister falls asleep for her nap, or by the time we get off the highway, and he willingly gives it up.
If you want some low tech options for those moments of boredom, check out my infographic, “Ways to Keep Your Kids Busy While You Wait.” It has five games and activities you might have forgotten about that can keep them engaged, learning and having fun when you have a few minutes to kill.
At the end of the day, I don’t consider time spent on a tablet to be “learning time” for my preschooler, so I make sure that time is a limited part of the day. Right now, it looks like we are in the process of moving out of our living room. But he’s just been playing. He has every toy piled in one corner of the room because he spent the morning running a pet store.
When he gets in from excavating the dinosaur bones in the kit my aunt gave him, he’ll practice his organizational skills by cleaning up toys before dinner. Those are the kind of learning experiences where preschoolers should spend their days. Screen time can be better quality or poorer quality, but it will never replace real life experiences for teaching your preschooler and preparing him for kindergarten!
Curious about how to get your preschooler ready for kindergarten? Conveniently, I wrote a book about it! Check out 4 Big Things to Teach Your Child Before Kindergarten on Amazon.