Play which Leads to Pre-Ixarning Skills

Another rather strained category, since all play should lead to progress in the skills and abilities needed for the reading, writing and number work which will be formally introduced in the infant-school years. The child who has stories read to him, who is both talked to and listened to and given plenty of interesting experiences to talk about (sparing time to watch men digging a hole in the road can be just as valuable as a special visit or outing) should be well ahead in language development. If he has had reasonable opportunity he will be able to use simple tools, will have mastered paint brush and crayons to be able to make them do what he wants them to do within reason, will know colours, can sort out shapes and sizes, fit things together and follow through an idea. If he has been able to play with other children and has learned to cooperate with them in play, and equally has learned to respond to adults other than his immediate family, and has learned to accept defeat cheerfully but still try again, he is well on the way to being ready for formal learning.

Nevertheless there are some toys, games and activities which are particularly useful in helping develop hand and eye coordination and visual perception and discrimination. Jigsaw puzzles, matching and grading games, materials which can be used for pattern making such as threading beads and peg-boards are good examples of these. There is a danger here of course that mothers, indeed any adults working with children, can feel so convinced that this is ‘ good’ for children that they make these an exercise rather than a game. It is unlikely that a mother is going to sit a child down and make him work at something until it is finished. (It is perhaps significant that the word ‘play’ cannot be used in this context – it has automatically changed to ‘work’.) Activities should be attractive enough for a child to want to play and then as his power of concentration and ability increase he will wish to do it for longer.

It is often possible to structure the material with which children play naturally and spontaneously so that they are learning as they use such toys as dolls and small cars. Dolls in different sizes can be dressed in the same style and fabric so that the size of dress and doll has to be matched. There are many different sizes of toy car. Perhaps they could each have a garage which fits them even if it is only made from offcuts of wood or improvised from cardboard boxes. Traffic boards help develop hand-eye coordination as small cars are made to follow the road layout. Table setting is a good opportunity for counting, sorting and encouraging one-to-one relationships. It is largely a question of using the opportunities which arise naturally rather than creating a specific pre-learning programme with special materials. The best and most effective pre-number work my own children ever did was with tubes of Smarties. Marching colours, how many colours, how many in each group, which colour was there most of, which was there least of, how many shall we take away from each group to make them all the same, if we save so many for daddy, so many for mummy how many will each child have, if we want to save half for tomorrow how many can we eat now. So much was achieved for the money they cost – sorting, counting, grading, colours, social training, consideration for others, thinking ahead, hygiene (hands have to be washed and they have to be sorted on a clean piece of kitchen paper)… it is a pity they are not good for teeth.