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how to help preschoolers cultivate life skills

The other day I asked my eight-year-old son to take his baby sister's dinner plate with some uneaten food on it to the sink. I watched him as he walked to the sink, placed the plate on the kitchen counter, and proceeded to pick the food scraps off the plate and place them one at a time into the garbage can. I was surprised (and a bit sheepish, I must say), but then realized that maybe I had not taught him any better way to do it. I approached and showed him the important life skill of using a utensil to scrape food scraps off a plate directly into the compost.

This seemingly harmless incident got me thinking about other life skills and useful habits my kids might not know. As parents, we have endless jobs when it comes to raising children—loving, feeding, and clothing them are the frontrunners. But beyond these basic needs, we also have a plethora of other life skills we are tasked with teaching our children. Many preschoolers automatically pick up on habits and behaviors their family members' practice. My two-year-old knows that we take off our shoes when we enter our house—something I did not explicitly teach her. She simply observed that this is a habit we have, and one day, she started copying us. Other habits and skills must be taught and practiced outrightly (case in point: the food scrap incident!)

how to help preschoolers cultivate life skills

As we wrap up the year, it's a good time to reflect on the important life skills and habits you'll want to cultivate with your young child. Here are a few you could try:

  1. How to prepare a meal: When my first two kids were really little, I often felt like all I did was prepare food for them. When my third child was born, I quickly realized that I needed the older two to learn how to make their own snacks and help out in the kitchen as much as possible. Most kids feel empowered by helping out in the kitchen, so it is easy to involve them in washing and mixing ingredients (think of them as your little sous chefs) before teaching them simple tasks like making sandwiches or scrambled eggs. Eventually, they'll move on to more complex menu items involving the stove or oven.
  2. Self-care and health: It's never too early to teach children the importance of self-care. Purposefully incorporating healthy activities such as eating well and taking care of their hygiene will help your child grow up with these habits already ingrained in their daily life. Teach them to eat colorfully: tell them that by filling our plates with a rainbow of foods, such as varied fruits and vegetables, we are giving our body the fuel it needs to learn and "do all the fun stuff" we do each day. Explain to them why we shower, brush our teeth, and wear clean clothes: to be clean (or if you want to be more technical: to wash away sweat and dead skin cells, remove dirt, and prevent body odor). Now that they know why these habits are important, teach your child to do them by themselves and, little by little, let them take the lead. It's helpful to have all the tools they need for these tasks easily accessible to them. Make sure your child can reach their towel, hairbrush, and toothbrush.
  3. Cleaning up: Cleaning up as you go is one of the best life skills my parents taught me. Putting your clothes where they belong right after you take them off will save you from the mountain of clothes that so often sneak up on us. Making your bed right when you wake up means you don't have to do it later! If you make these rituals into habits for your children, they'll do them for life. Be sure to model cleaning up your own messes promptly as well. Show them that every item has a place in the house, and when we all play our part in cleaning up the house will remain tidy. Chores such as sweeping/mopping, doing laundry, changing the toilet paper roll, and setting the table are all skills that young children are completely capable of doing. Make sure the laundry bin is accessible to your young child and that their clean clothes are in drawers within their reach. I taught my kids when they were 3 and 4 years old to fold and put away their clothes. Of course, they don't always do the job perfectly, and I often have to keep myself from refolding their work. Letting them do it themselves sends the message that we trust them and expect them to take care of themselves.
  4. Agency and independence: Preschoolers have opinions. Strong opinions. Why not channel those opinions into helping foster their own sense of agency and independence? Let your preschooler choose their clothes or shoes for the day. Providing them with options (start with two) and letting them decide gives them a sense of agency. And we all know how much young children want to be the "masters of their own destiny" at every opportunity they get.
  5. Develop routines: Routines lead to independence. To instill a routine in your child's day, start by thinking out loud about the steps you take to get ready for work or go to bed. A routine chart can help your child learn a step-by-step process, and as they practice them day in and day out, they begin to internalize the steps and are soon able to do them semi-independently. In education, we call this the "gradual release of responsibility": Typically, it applies to teaching academic skills, but it also works for life skills. We model good habits, guide them through the steps, and gradually step back and watch as they do the tasks independently.

We often prefer to take care of household chores ourselves because it's faster, and in our busy lives, we need to get things done efficiently. But if you are willing to give up a little efficiency for the sake of guiding your child through these life skills, the benefits will pay off in time. Before you know it, you'll have a teenager who is cooking a meal for the family and doing their own laundry!

About the Author

Sarah Zegarra (M.Ed) is an educator and teacher leader who taught K-5 bilingual education (Spanish-English) in California for 10 years before joining education.com as a Learning Designer. Passionate about project-based, whole-child, culturally responsive teaching, and integrating the arts into learning, Sarah strives to make the world of education a brighter and more effective one. She currently lives in Mexico City with her husband, three children, and their dog.

healthy holiday treats to make with kids

Family Baking Tradition

Every holiday season I love watching holiday bake-offs. All the bakers are so creative and skilled. Even though I don't have a tenth of their abilities, they often inspire me to make some tasty holiday treats. When the holiday season comes around, so does my desire for pies, cookies, fudge, and other hallmark Christmas creations.

Holiday baking is a way for me to spend time with my kids and share something fun with them. It has become a tradition of ours. I don't know about my kids, but I would feel like something is missing if we didn't bake some cookies together this Christmas!

healthy holiday treats to make with kids

New, Healthier Tradition

While I love our baking tradition, this year I'm starting a new tradition. I want my kids to have healthy and balanced diets, so we're going to make some guilt-free (on my part) winter creations. We'll still make cookies this year, but we'll also sprinkle in some fun, edible winter art that we can share with each other and our guests.

Here is a list of fun, edible things you can create with your children. I believe you can still have fun and build memories...but with a healthier twist.

Create a Christmas Tree With Fruit

Christmas tree fruit

This is great as a snack or an after-dinner dessert. Since there are few ingredients and simple directions, your children can invite friends over to make this with them.

For step-by-step instructions and ingredients, see Create a Christmas Tree With Fruit.

Build Mini-Penguin Appetizers

Carrot olive cheese penguin appetizers

My son is in love with arctic animals. Using mozzarella balls, carrots, and black olives, this is the perfect craft for us! We can also read a book about penguins and do the Penguin Anatomy Diagram afterwards.

For step-by-step instructions and ingredients, check out Build Mini-Penguin Appetizers.

Create a Santa Face with Fruit

Santa Clause fruit face

If you celebrate Christmas, I'm sure your children are counting down the days until December 25th. Imagine visions of sugarplums and Santa dancing in their heads! On a day leading up to Christmas, let your children take that image of Santa's face and create some fruit art.

For step-by-step instructions and ingredients, check out Create a Santa Face With Fruit.

Make a Healthy Snowman Breakfast

Healthy snowman breakfast

Breakfast doesn't have to be the same old cereal or eggs. Wake up and create a fun, healthy snowman out of yogurt, berries, and wheat or corn flakes!

For step-by-step instructions and ingredients check out Make a Healthy Snowman Breakfast.

Create a Christmas Wreath Salad

Christmas wreath salad

Most of the food art I've shared has some sugar, but making a wreath out of salad can be a great way to get some veggies in your child's diet. After enjoying their salad, they can even color in their own wreath with the Color and Make a Christmas Wreath worksheet.

For step-by-step instructions and ingredients, check out Create a Christmas Wreath Salad.

Enjoy making memories—and tasty treats—with your children this holiday season!

About the Author

Jennifer Sobalvarro is a Learning Designer for Education.com who has experience teaching in 3rd and 5th grade classrooms as well as ELL instruction. She received a Bachelor’s Degree from Middlebury College and a Master of Education Degree in Curriculum and Instruction in 2012 from Tarleton State University. In addition to contributing to Education.com, she continues to travel around the world with her Army officer husband and their children.

Hanukkah activities for children

The day after Thanksgiving, I woke up to a street filled with lit-up houses and stores decked in red and green. So what did my family do? Brought out our winter holiday box, of course! Raising kids in a multi-faith household, we celebrate a lot of holidays and spend a lot of time reading holiday related books. This year, my kids are fascinated with all things Hanukkah. I've already spent the past few days immersed in children's Hanukkah picture books, so I decided to find some hands-on activities to extend their learning and enjoyment. Here is a list of my top Hanukkah picks from Education.com for the preschool through second grade grade set.

Preschool and Kindergarten

  • Hanukkah Menorah Shape Collage: In this simple art project, your child will get to practice shape identification while making their very own menorah. For younger children, consider cutting out the shapes in advance and inviting them to place them on their paper. With older kids, this is a great way for them to practice their fine motor skills as they draw and cut out their own shapes.
  • Maccabee Shield: My 3-year-old has been captivated by the story of Hanukkah this year, in particular the battle over the temple. This activity provides the perfect way for your child to act out the story of Hanukkah with their very own Maccabee shield, using materials you likely have laying around the house.
  • Magnetic Menorah: With the addition of magnet strips (I was able to find some at my local art store) your child can not only make, but "light" their own menorah! This is the perfect activity to practice counting skills as your child lights their candles each night of Hanukkah.
  • Alphabet Block Menorah: This is a great activity if you have leftover alphabet blocks, but you can also pick up a low-cost set from the store. This can be a fun activity to do with a younger child--they can work on letter identification and counting skills--or with an older child. they can follow the directions and practice gluing and setting the menorah up.

Hanukkah activities for children

First and Second Grade

  • Tzedakah Box: I love this activity not only because it allows for open-ended creativity with common materials, but because it encourages the act of giving to others with a tzedakah box. In my house, we suggested several places to donate to, and my older child chose the local SPCA. Each time he gets money as a gift or allowance, he puts half in the tzedakah box.
  • Hanukkah Gift Bags: This activity introduces your child to a wonderful craft--sewing! They will get to learn a new skill, use their creativity, and then share their finished creations with family and friends. So dig out a needle and thread and get creating.
  • Make a Clay Dreidel: Is your child already singing the "Dreidel, dreidel, dreidel..." song on repeat? Encourage your child to make their very own clay dreidel in this fun and easy activity. When finished, they can practice writing Hebrew letters to finish their dreidel. Consider picking up some chocolate gelt to sweeten the games that will follow!
  • Menorah Light Chart: This activity adds some math and science data collection to your candle-lighting ceremony each night of Hanukkah. Introduce your child to graphing as you create a candle graph together and use it to collect data about the length of time each candle burns during Hanukkah. This activity could be extended to include predictions from the whole family!

Here are additional resources to make the most of the holiday:

This Hanukkah, I hope you consider these activities when thinking about how to celebrate (or introduce) the festival of lights to your children!

About the Author

Jasmine Gibson is an educational consultant with expertise in early elementary education, supporting teachers, and designing curriculum. As a Learning Designer at Education.com, Jasmine is able to bring her enthusiasm for teaching to a wider audience. Her passions include incorporating nature and art into everyday learning environments, infusing diverse children’s literature across subjects, and creating accessible learning platforms. Jasmine lives in Portland, OR with her family.

Help kids focus on what matters during the holidays

It's December and that means my family is gearing up for Hanukkah and Christmas, plus several birthdays—which means there's a lot of talk about presents. Every year at this time I think about how we can limit the focus on "stuff" and shift the focus away from "stuff" and toward quality time with family and friends during the month of December.

Don't get me wrong: I'm the first to admit that I love getting and giving presents. But I also know how gifts can start to overshadow everything else about a holiday experience, which ultimately misses the important (and teachable) point that relationships are more important than "stuff." So here are some ideas that we have tried to refocus our expectations around holiday gift-giving.

Re-Envision Gifts

I've unsuccessfully tried to put the kibosh on presents entirely, so instead have tried to re-envision what a "gift" might look like. Quality time as a family (or one-on-one) is a great present to give to your child, family, or friends. This might look like a special trip to your favorite coffee shop to drink hot chocolate and eat a cookie. It could be a family game night, or a special outing as a group or with an individual (I recently took my 3.5-year-old on a "date" to see his first play, and we had a blast!). One family re-imagined gift-giving to the adults in their family using a brilliant family presentation idea that combined the concept of family time over the holidays with the gift of time and knowledge.

My extended family often does a Secret Santa each year; while still giving a gift, it allows for more thoughtful gift-giving within a specific budget and/or parameters. If we do give gifts (which let's be honest, we usually do) I like to make as many as possible. By making gifts, the focus is on the experience of creation and thinking about others vs. shopping and consumerism. Handmade gifts such as cookies, baking mixes, handmade soap or candles, or even framed children's art make thoughtful gifts to family and friends. Consider details as well—can you make your own unique wrapping paper? Use wrapping paper or fabric wrapping to highlight family traditions or unique talents (dying fabric, sewing, painting, drawing, etc.) to share with others.

Help kids focus on what matters during the holidays

Experiences

Think about the parts of a holiday that are really special to you and consider what exactly makes them special. As a child, I loved my birthday not because of presents, but because I could choose all of our meals for the day and help make them. As a parent, I get excited when I see holiday lights going up in the neighborhood and plan a family walk to look at the different light displays—bonus if we bring hot chocolate and cookies on our walk.

Think about the greater community and small ways you and your child can contribute to others' happiness. Can you make food for others? What about adopting another family for the holidays? Consider volunteering at a senior center by doing art projects or singing. One of my favorite memories as a child is singing terribly off-key at our local senior center—they didn't seem to mind! Consider starting new traditions such as making special meals or dishes for different holidays, singing songs, reading specific stories (we always read The Night Before Christmas on Christmas Eve), making wishes and sending them up using wish paper, or going on an overnight trip somewhere special to celebrate. The key here is making the holiday more about shared experiences instead of physical presents.

Re-gifting

Over the past several years I have gotten involved in the Buy Nothing Project, which emphasizes a free gift-giving economy. I've joined several local neighborhood groups and have really enjoyed giving away items or offering services to my neighbors. Giving freely and without expectation of a trade or even knowing someone has been a great way to model kindness to my children. Using this concept, I encourage my kids to give things to others (toys not being played with, desserts that we make, etc.).

Another way to re-gift items is to give friends or family members things that they might enjoy that you no longer need or use. One of my favorite presents to receive was an adorable jumpsuit my younger sister re-gifted to me from her closet. Finally, consider local homeless shelters or areas of need in your community. Do you have extra warm layers that have been outgrown and are not being used to offer to others? Children understand the concept of helping others at a young age, and instilling a sense of kindness and generosity in your child early is a wonderful gift to them—and those in the community.

It can get easy to fall into the "more equals better" trap when it comes to giving holiday presents—believe me, I know! This year, consider the lasting impact of your gifts and how they will be received throughout the whole year, not just on a specific holiday. Sit down with your family and think through the parts of a holiday that you each love, and build your gift-giving ideas around those elements and see where it takes you.

About the Author

Jasmine Gibson is an educational consultant with expertise in early elementary education, supporting teachers, and designing curriculum. As a Learning Designer at Education.com, Jasmine is able to bring her enthusiasm for teaching to a wider audience. Her passions include incorporating nature and art into everyday learning environments, infusing diverse children’s literature across subjects, and creating accessible learning platforms. Jasmine lives in Portland, OR with her family.

Teaching Creativity with Code

Have I got a joke for you!

A SQL Query walks into a restaurant. It walks up to two tables and says, "May I join you?"

For those of you who did not run out and share this joke immediately on social media, read on.

"SQL" stands for Structured Query Language. It's the computer language that programmers use to retrieve and organize databases.

True story: When I worked for a school district, I shared this joke with my IT Department repeatedly for years (admittedly, to less and less laughs each time). I also use it as my opener at every educational technology conference I've ever presented to, and it totally kills. (Taps microphone: "Is this thing on?") After possibly the 50th time of delivering this gem, my then-Chief Technology Officer said to me, "You have no idea what that joke means, do you?"

"Of course I do!" I protested, indignation evident. (That was kind of a lie.)

But it did prompt me, over the course of a weekend, to take a SQL class online. This class opened my little world up to the utter beauty of coding. After that class, I became an expert in programming and am now making millions on the side creating apps.

Haha, not really.

That said, I really did take the class, and I really did learn how to use SQL, and I really did eventually learn what that joke meant. While it did not launch me into a lucrative career in computer science, it gave me something almost as important: I got a glimpse into the structure of programming languages and truly understood, as a mom and an educator, why it is such a crucial skill for kids to have.

December 9-15 is Computer Science Education Week, and also when this year's Hour of Code event will take place. Hour of Code is an initiative that provides everything a child needs to do a self-guided coding lesson for one hour. The Hour of Code site offers tutorials that make coding more accessible and understandable for all. Since then, it's taken off around in schools around the world.

In honor of this week, I wanted to write an article for parents to dispel the idea that coding is only for engineering majors, or only for older kids. Indeed, coding can help our kids develop important life skills like perseverance, grit, creativity, and critical thinking.

However, as is evidenced by my anecdote above, I recognize that I am not the foremost authority on the matter. So I decided to do what I do when I have any computer problem: I called tech support.

Graham McNicoll is the Chief Technology Officer at Education.com and has been with us for over 10 years. He’s also the genius behind our Coding with Roly games. Graham told me he's always been obsessed with understanding how things work, and began writing code in 2nd grade. Like other super-brilliant tech people I know, he got his start programming simple (and later, much more complex) games on the equipment he had available, equipment that our kids would laugh about today. He even went so far as to program text-based games on his TI calculator.

Coding with Roly

Coding Fosters Growth Mindset

I am a huge proponent of providing continual opportunities for kids to fail, go back and reflect, modify, and try again. Kids have a natural disposition to want to find out how the world works, and things like programming offer up a real-world way to explore the world and test theories. When I asked Graham about coding and thought processes, this is what he said:

"To me, programming is largely about creative problem-solving. Coding helped me learn that even the hardest problems can be solved, if you're able to think logically and decompose them into smaller, solvable pieces. I've learned to keep the mindset that when I dig into a problem or subject [and discover] that it's almost always not as hard as it appears. That the best way to get somewhere is to start. It really doesn't matter if you're starting in exactly the right place -- the key is to start."

Programming also helped Graham get over a feeling of impostor syndrome. "Everyone suffers from impostor syndrome to some degree," he told me. "We are not doing anyone any favors by making it seem hard, or something which only smart people do. It's really not that hard, though it took me many years to dive in and start figuring out how things work.”

Coding Teaches Creative Problem-Solving

College and the workforce seem light-years away to those of us with young kids, and we can only guess at what the future holds for schools with the advancement of technology. That said, it's a pretty sure bet that students with the ability to think through problems and devise creative solutions to those problems will have better career opportunities than those who don't.

So how, as parents, can we foster this type of thinking?

"Ultimately teaching children how to learn, how to solve problems, and how to have perseverance, will be the most important skill for an uncertain and ever changing future," Graham told me. "Programming is one way to do this. I would suggest it's a good way too. Just like learning what multiplication is, is far more important than memorizing your times tables, programming is learning how to do creative problem solving in a discrete environment with known rules."

Even though I am a champion of programming in schools, through this interview I discovered I was still predisposed to thinking that coding reinforces skills like logical reasoning, precision, and mathematical thinking. But Graham reminded me that coding is so much more.

"One should think of it as a creative act. Just like creating art, you start with raw materials, some constraints, and you end up with something new. If we can realize that programming lives very much in the intersection of math, logic and art, we can appeal to far more kids than if we think of it as a technical discipline."

I think this is an even better moment for a mic drop than my SQL joke. But you are all still welcome to use it if you ever need to impress anyone. I won’t tell.

About the Author

Audrey Lee is Director of Curriculum and Instruction for Education.com. She is an educator with 20 years of experience, most recently as the Director of Curriculum and Educational Technology for a school district in the Bay Area; a role which she held for ten years. Audrey is an expert on standards-aligned instruction and blended learning. She loves supporting teachers in their craft and designing engaging, rigorous curriculum. Audrey holds a Master’s Degree in Education from UC Berkeley. She lives in the Bay Area with her husband, teenage son, and nine-pound Maltipoo Luna.

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