4 ways to prepare your preschooler for reading

While most kids learn to read around grade one, the foundational skills are developed long before that. Here’s how parents can help.

The process of learning to read starts long before kids actually sound out letters on a page. Here’s how parents can lay the ground work and help kids gain some basic skills at home.

1. Start with the basics

The first step toward reading is oral proficiency and doesn’t involve any printed letters at all. Rather, it’s teaching phonological awareness, which is the ability to identify and work with sounds in words. According to David A. Kilpatrick, a psychology professor and author of Essentials of Assessing, Preventing, and Overcoming Reading Difficulties, a deficit in this area is actually the most common reason why children struggle with reading words, which is often called dyslexia or can be classified as a learning disability.

April Hackett-Helmkay, a speech-language pathologist working in schools in Eastern Ontario, says even preschoolers can engage in phonological awareness activities like rhyming, alliteration and clapping syllables.

Another trick is to get them to delete parts of words. For example, you can ask them to say the word “applesauce” without “apple.” “Or you say a word slowly and they say it quickly so they’re blending the sounds,” suggests Hackett-Helmkay. Nursery rhymes, rhyming games and discussing initial sounds (“‘Taylor’ and ‘taco’ start with the same sound”) are also helpful.

2. Focus on phonics

Learning the alphabet song alongside a visual component like a book or video encourages letter recognition, and many kids recognize the letters in their own names when they enter kindergarten. When sounds are introduced and your child begins to learn to read at school, ask the teacher which letter/sound combos have been taught so you can help your child practise at home.

3. Build vocabulary and general knowledge

A child’s vocabulary knowledge is a good predictor of academic success, says Hackett-Helmkay. “You can have great decoding skills, but without solid oral language comprehension, such as vocabulary, you won’t be able to understand what you’re reading.” It’s never too early to start building vocabulary—start by narrating your day to your baby, and as your child gets older, converse often and answer their questions to build that vocabulary and knowledge base.

4. Read to your child

Bedtime stories instill a love of reading, but they also teach your child skills (like how to hold a book and turn the pages) and play a role in vocabulary development. Continue reading aloud to kids as they get older by choosing a chapter book that your child isn’t ready to read themselves. You want your child to develop positive associations with reading, which can make a difference when they start to learn to read on their own, especially if they are struggling.


Is your child ready to stop naptime?

Your child may be ready to lose his snooze. But are you?

Kelly Sturtevant tried everything to get daughter Keira to nap. She’d lie with her, read another story, sing yet another song. But the rambunctious 2½-year-old refused to nod off. “I would spend the entire time running up trying to get her to fall asleep or yelling at her for getting out of bed,” said the 32-year-old Calgary mom of two. “After two hours, I was so flustered that I spent the rest of the day just angry that she hadn’t slept.”

Naps serve a key function for young kids. “Sleep is important for learning, memory and growth,” says Alyson Shaw, a paediatric consultant at the Children’s Hospital of Eastern Ontario in Ottawa. But let’s be frank: That’s not why parents lament the day when kids outgrow naps. “Working parents, they get lunch, they get coffee breaks,” says Sturtevant. “Stay-at-home moms, we get nap time.” Sadly, not forever. Here’s how to cope when it’s time to lose the snooze.

Don’t be a slave to the calendar

While most children give up naps between ages three and five, it can be normal for kids as young as two to stop, while 10 to 12 percent of children still nap at age five, according to Manisha Witmans, director of the pediatric sleep program at Stollery Children’s Hospital in Edmonton. Expect some inconsistency during the transition. “It might be for a few weeks they’re only napping three out of seven days, and then it might be two out of seven days,” she said.

Know when to keep the sleep

If your child skips a nap, then nods off on late-afternoon walks or drives, she probably still needs her rest. Shaw suggests waking her by 4 p.m. so as not to sabotage bedtime. Monitor how your child handles days without a snooze: “If she’s cantankerous and unmanageable, then probably the nap is still needed,” says Witmans.

Expect a good fight

Lyne Grimes’s daughter was two when she started protesting her nap. When Gabrielle skips it, she’ll either fall asleep in the car when they’re out and about in Dartmouth, NS, or start “crying at the drop of a hat” around dinnertime.

According to Isabela Granic, a developmental psychology professor and co-author of Bed Timing, toddlers like Gabrielle are typical: Major cognitive changes occurring around age 18 to 24 months, and again at 36 to 42 months, can prompt some children to fight napping. “It’s not necessarily because their physical bodies have decided they don’t need it, it’s their cognitive capacity to want more autonomy and power in the relationship, to fight for stuff when they aren’t allowed to fight for almost anything,” she says.

So what do you do? A sleep-deprived child will show increased aggression, crankiness, hyperactivity, inattentiveness and a personality shift on days he doesn’t nap. “I would ramp up my efforts to try to get my child to sleep more,” Granic says. “If those signs are missing, then the child might not need to nap.”

Help a protestor sleep

A toddler girl waking her dad up in bed How to deal with toddler sleep regressionsIf Gabrielle starts crying in bed, Grimes or her husband soothe her with a quiet voice. “We’ll say, ‘Now sit down and put your head on your pillow’ and we’ll rub her back for 20 to 30 seconds and then leave the room,” says Grimes. Often, it works.

Toronto mom Katie Lawrence has braved sub-zero temperatures to get 31⁄2-year-old Gwenyth to nap in the double stroller she shares with 71⁄2-month-old sister Sophie. Lawrence says the cold weather doesn’t faze her “as long as the sidewalks are clear and I have a hat and mitts and a warm coat on.”

When Granic’s twins were dropping their nap, she played audiobooks. After five to 10 minutes, they would often quiet down and start dozing.

Accept the occasional bad day

It’s normal for a kid transitioning out of naps to have an erratic snooze pattern or an occasional afternoon meltdown. An early bedtime may stave off a crash, since most kids five and under need 10 to 12 hours of sleep.

Trade naps for quiet time

Some parents put on a movie or leave their kids in their bedrooms with books or crafts. Sturtevant fills a “quiet time box” with books and toys like an Etch-a-Sketch, puzzle and no-mess water pens. “Keira’s gung-ho about this box; she’s absolutely quiet sitting up there playing by herself,” says Sturtevant. And don’t be surprised if a child who isn’t quite over naps nods off during quiet time.

Give yourself a break

It’s normal to feel resentful when naps disappear. “It’s not because you’re a selfish mother, it’s because you actually need some downtime,” Granic says. “Parents are tired — some work 12 hours a day. Some require exercise to feel human and that’s the only time they can fit it in. Some have part-time jobs they can only get to during nap time. Some are introverts and need some alone time,” she says.

Although recapturing two hours of downtime might be optimistic, parents can still get a break. While her seven-week-old is sleeping, Leanne Loney of Val-d’Or, Que., sometimes curls up on the floor while her four- and two-year-old play around her. “I can rest a little bit,” she says.

Maintain a little consistency

While most children can adapt to napping at daycare and not at home, it’s important to provide some predictability. “If routines are changing every day, the child will give you signals,” Granic says. “If she’s tired, cranky and hyper, that’s something you’re doing wrong.” However, if that daycare snooze leaves her lying awake at night, ask about shortening the nap or substituting quiet time.

Celebrate when it’s done

Some parents find the end of nap time liberating. “At the beginning, we missed the nap, but I find we have so much more freedom,” says Alexandra Collins of St. John’s. “Now we can go swimming from one to three. We aren’t slaves to nap time anymore.”


10 old-school summer activities kids should try

Who needs technology? Here are some delightfully low-tech classic activities your kids should do at least once this summer.

1. Skip stones

Head to the beach and pick a thin, flat stone no bigger than your palm. The trick is to throw it with a quick flick of the wrist, which should get it to skim along the surface of the water at a 20-degree angle. World record: 88 skips!

2. Catch fireflies

Fireflies hang out in long grasses and marshy areas near water. Turn off your home’s exterior lights and blink a flashlight to attract them, and then use a net to gently scoop them into a jar. The jar should have air holes and a damp piece of paper towel to keep the air humid. Enjoy for an hour or two and then release again at night. Visit for more tips. 

3. Go to the drive-in

Gone are the days of window speakers at the local drive-in; the audio is broadcast through your vehicle’s FM radio. However, keeping your car radio on for a whole movie without the engine running can kill your battery—leaving you and your family stuck after the credits roll. Save your car battery and bring battery-powered handheld radios to use instead. 

4. Binge-read a series

There are plenty of chapter book series kids will love. Think Sweet Valley High, The Girls of Canby Hall, Encyclopedia Brown, Macdonald Hall, The Baby-Sitters Club and Choose Your Own Adventure

5. Play a marathon card game

Uno, War, Cribbage and Crazy Eights are classic options. If your child has trouble holding cards, make this easy holder: Take two medium container lids (yogurt ones work well) and place the smooth sides together. Make a small hole in the middle and join them with a brad fastener. Slip the cards between the lids. 

6. See a falling star

Laying out on a clear summer night looking for falling stars is the best. If you wanna see a lot of them, head away from a city and all that light pollution. For a truly spectacular show, your best bet is the Perseids meteor shower, which peaks on August 12 and 13. 

7. Build a fort

Who doesn’t love a fort? To get the job done you need a few good basics: clothespins, sturdy metal or plastic clamps and clips, twine, cardboard boxes and sheets. Bonus points for digging out a string or two of holiday lights. 

8. Make a DIY slip and slide

Place a sheet of heavy plastic weighted with sandbags or big water balloons on the lawn. Squirt on a bit of (preferably biodegradable) baby soap or shampoo, turn on the sprinkler and go! Heavy-duty garbage bags would work too—just be sure to cut them to full size.

9. Decorate your bike

Grab some washable paint, homemade handlebar streamers (using ribbon, string or yarn), straws and crepe streamers for the spokes and cardboard for a front shield. 

10. Make a grass whistle

Pick a tough, wide blade of grass. Hold between your thumbs, with a small space toward the bottom knuckles. Make a small slit with your lips and blow into the space so the grass vibrates. 


5 no-mess car snacks

With these smart car snacks in your arsenal, the kids will be too busy munching to even utter an "Are we there yet?"

25 fun Valentine’s Day gifts for kids

Show your little ones some love with these sweet Valentine's Day gifts.

For many kids, February 14th is just another day to eat treats and make heart-shaped crafts. This year, show them some extra love with one of these fun Valentine’s Day gifts for kids.

1. Snuggle Puppy Board Book by Sandra Boynton

cover of "snuggle puppy" board book by Sandra Boynton

Photo: buybuy Baby


2. Newborn Onesie

onesie with "Cuter than Cupid" print

Photo: Joe Fresh


3. Kinder Surprise Heart

heart-shaped kinder surprise treat



4. Craft Kits

silicone bead craft kits

Photo: Cara & Co.


5. Shark Print Sweater for Toddlers

sweat shirt with sharks eating hearts print

Photo: Old Navy


6. Mr. Beary + Beanie Set

young girl holding bear with matching toque

Photo: Red & Olive


7. Thames and Kosmos Creatto Starlight Kitty & Cutie Crew Light-Up Crafting Kit

light up building craft kit

Photo: Thames & Kosmos


8. Personalized Book

personalized kids books

Photo: Wonderbly


9. Different is Good Baby Onesie

mom and baby wearing matching t-shirt and onesie

Photo: Kids Swag


10. Valentine Love Heart-Shaped Cookie Cutters

heart-shaped cookie cutters

Photo: Crate & Barrel

$8/set of three,

11. Kinetic Sand 1lb Metallic Rose Gold

rose gold-coloured kinetic sand

Photo: Toys”R”Us


12. Family Scavenger Hunt Card Game

box for Family Scavenger Hunt game

Photo: Toys”R”Us


13. Babiators Heart Sunglasses

heart-shaped kids sunglasses

Photo: Babiators


14. Stems swaddle

baby sleeping in colourful swaddle

Photo: xylem x loom

$30 (with all proceeds going towards Meagan’s HUG),

15. Skateboard indoor swing

skateboard indoor swing

Photo: Simons


16. Dinosaur Valentine’s Day Cards (with tattoos)

dinosaur valentine's day cards and temporary tattoos laid out on decorated table

Photo: Amazon


17. Meri Meri Love Hearts Enamel Hair Slides

heart hair clips

Photo: Meri Meri


18. Playzone-Fit Obstacle Course

obstacle course setup kit for kids

Photo: Playzone-fit


19. The Love Book Interactive Book

kids laying on the floor with Valentine's Day themed books

Photo: Chatbooks

From $12 US,

20. Personalized Wood Bowling Set

personalized wooden bowling set

Photo: Etsy

From $60,

21. Fisher Price 5 Pack Bodysuit Giftbox

gift pack of colourful onesies for baby

Photo: Walmart


22. Lego Dots Secret Holder

cat-shaped container made of Lego

Photo: Lego


23. Hello Bello Valentine’s Bundle (with Love Boat box)

baby in heart print diapers and box shaped like boat with hearts

Photo: Hello Bello

From $85/7 packs of diapers and 4 packs of plant-based wipes,

24. Melissa & Doug Temporary Tattoos

box of metallic temporary tattoos

Photo: Amazon


25. 3-Pack Scrunchies

three scrunchies with heart print

Photo: H&M



Why won't my preschooler get dressed in the morning?!

Getting your child dressed (in an outfit that's somewhat acceptable) can be a battle. But there's a reason why your independent preschooler puts up such a fight.

Ask parents of preschoolers what it’s like to dress their kids every morning, and they’ll sigh and then share a litany of very specific—and ever changing—clothing demands. No jeans. Only sandals (despite the temperature outside). That one tattered Frozen dress, day after day after day.

And you can’t always see it coming: What was fine yesterday is suddenly verboten today. It can leave parents wondering what they’re doing wrong or, worse, if there is something bigger at play.

For Toronto dad Guy Smith*, clothing preferences surfaced almost as soon as his daughter, Ava*, now six, learned to speak her mind, around age two. Preschool Ava cycled through periods of “only sandals,” “only tights” and “only purple.”

“Her choices aren’t always rational,” Smith says. He tries to let Ava have her way, unless her clothes aren’t up to the weather—in which case, leaving the house can turn into a half-hour of frustration. And even after all that, Ava still often ends up heading outside without a coat.

“Within two minutes, she realizes she’s made the wrong decision. We sometimes turn back, if we have time,” Smith says. He suspects Ava isn’t fundamentally against jacket wearing or dressing appropriately for conditions outside—she just wants to have the last word.

The good news is that this is normal behaviour. In fact, it can be a red flag if your preschooler does not demonstrate some kind of assertiveness, says Kim Barthel, a Victoria-based occupational therapist. For most preschoolers, Barthel says, the refusal to wear certain clothes is a perfectly healthy stage of development. It can start as early as 18 months and often hits its peak between ages two and four.

“This age is all about individuation and developing their own sense of self,” Barthel says. Preschoolers are working out how they fit into the world, separate from their parents. Their clothes can be a large part of that effort.

My three-and-a-half-year-old twins give an indication of how different two kids can be. One of my daughters prefers outfits that often leave her looking like a wardrobe exploded in a riot of patterns. Let’s just say her style is “eclectic.”

My other daughter cannot stand to wear denim, hates tags inside her shirts and will rip at socks that have grips on the soles until she gets them off. Where one has style preferences, the other has distinct tactile boundaries.

For some children, their pickiness may not be as simple as a passing phase. Some kids cannot process the sensory input they’re experiencing—known as a sensory processing issue (SPI). While there is a lot of debate over whether sensory processing disorder should be its own diagnostic condition, one thing is certain: Preschoolers with SPI don’t process touch the same way as most people. The wrong item of clothing can hurt or annoy to the point of distraction.

“It becomes a pattern that goes beyond active toddler or preschooler assertion,” says Barthel.“It’s not just a complaint. It’s a consistent form of behaviour.”

Sensory processing issues often become apparent in toddlerhood, which is when many kids start having wardrobe meltdowns anyway. Children with SPI, however, are often sensitive to other things, too—like light, sound or movement—and the phase does not pass swiftly.

Some grow out of it as their sensory processing abilities mature. An occupational therapist can help parents understand and adapt to their child’s needs. In more severe cases, the child might require direct treatment to learn how to process what his or her body feels.

Whether you’re dealing with a typically headstrong preschooler or a child with SPI, it doesn’t mean you’re sentenced to endless morning tantrums. How kids cope with their clothing issues depends a lot on how you respond, Barthel says. “If you get irritated by your child’s behaviour, you’ll exacerbate it,” she warns. “Soothe and support. Don’t see it as a fight but as a need for structure and consistency.” React calmly and matter-of-factly without making a big deal. Tell your kid you’re aware he’s uncomfortable.

You may also want to consider broadening your sense of “acceptable” clothing and cede control a bit. Let your child wear the mismatched socks. Maybe that dinosaur shirt can be worn four days in a row. And don’t feel like a terrible parent if it’s your kid who’s still wearing shorts in late fall or who’s dressed in sparkles galore. We’ve all been there.

Surreptitiously bring backup clothes along. Slip the sweater in her bag; pop mittens in her coat pocket. “As long as she’s happy and healthy, try not to sweat it,” Smith says. “Every person deserves to have some agency.”

*Names have been changed

This article was originally published online in January 2017.




Could your kid have celiac disease?

Celiac causes all sorts of seemingly random health issues, like diarrhea, irritability, anemia and dental problems. Here's what to do if you suspect it.

“Mama, my arms are too tired to colour.” When three-year-old Alyson uttered those words, her mom, Tera Gariepy, knew it was time to take her to the doctor to finally get some answers.

Gariepy had noticed some unusual but seemingly unrelated symptoms in Alyson for many months, like crankiness, constipation, insatiable hunger and relentless fatigue. “She’d go to bed at 5 p.m., fall asleep instantly, sleep for 12 or 13 hours and wake up in the morning saying she was tired,” says Gariepy, who lives in Edmonton. “I just didn’t think this was normal. I’ve taught preschool, and this was something I’d never seen in kids before.”

Her doctor tested Alyson’s blood for a variety of conditions, and within a few days, Gariepy had her answer: Alyson had celiac disease. The diagnosis was later confirmed with an internal biopsy.

Celiac disease—that’s when you can’t eat bread, right?

Sort of. Celiac disease is an autoimmune condition in which the lining of the small intestine gets damaged by consuming gluten, a protein found primarily in wheat, rye and barley (so it’s in bread, yes, but also tons of other foods, from soups to soy sauce to salad dressings). That damage is bad news, since the small intestine has a very important job: absorbing nutrients from food. Even the tiniest crumb of bread or slurp of soup can cause harm and trigger a host of unpleasant symptoms.

Alyson’s doctor hadn’t tested for celiac disease sooner because the preschooler didn’t have the typical celiac symptoms. But here’s the problem: Experts say there really aren’t “typical” celiac symptoms anymore. “What we read in textbooks is that the child will come in with diarrhea and irritability, and maybe he isn’t growing well. But the pattern is changing,” says Mohsin Rashid, a paediatric gastroenterologist and professor in the pediatrics department at Dalhousie University in Halifax. Kids are now coming in with any combination of the disease’s long list of seemingly disparate symptoms, which include bowel problems (diarrhea, constipation, vomiting, stomach aches, bloating), rash, irritability, fatigue, inadequate growth, anemia, damage to tooth enamel, migraines and hyperactivity.

Because celiac disease shows up in so many different ways, both kids and adults can end up plagued with problems for years—even decades—before finally getting diagnosed. “Less than 20 percent of children present with classic celiac disease symptoms,” says Rashid. “Family doctors may have a problem cluing in.”

How do I know if my kid’s at risk for celiac disease?

Celiac disease is genetically based, so it’s more common in kids who have a family history of the condition (although Gariepy can’t find it in her or her husband’s family). If a parent has celiac, his or her kids have a 10 percent chance of inheriting the condition, according to Health Canada. Testing for celiac is also recommended for kids with type 1 diabetes, thyroid disease and Down syndrome, since they, too, have a higher risk of having celiac.

But any kid can develop it, even babies (after they’ve ingested gluten for the first time). Once thought of as rare, celiac disease affects one in 133 people in Canada, according to an estimate by the Canadian Celiac Association. And worryingly, it’s becoming more common: “There’s a consensus that the numbers are going up across the country,” says Rashid. “Just like allergic diseases and other autoimmune diseases are on the rise, celiac disease is on the rise.”

Isn’t the gluten-free thing a fad?

From the rich and famous to your next-door neighbour, gluten-free converts abound and are very vocal about the merits of ditching the offending protein, whether or not their health depends on it. A 2013 survey by Udi’s Healthy Foods estimated that a whopping 4.3 million Canadians had gone gluten-free or had reduced gluten in their diets. In 2014, Canadian chefs ranked “gluten-free” the No. 1 menu trend, dethroning quinoa and local food. And you can’t visit a grocery store today without strolling by an ever-widening shelf of gluten-free snacks and baked goods.

Those who avoid gluten based on preference (ahem, trend) swear they feel better when they don’t eat gluten. It may be they have non-celiac gluten sensitivity (see “Celiac? Or just sensitive?” below). But for those who truly have celiac disease, a gluten-free diet is no fad, nor is it optional: It’s the only treatment for the condition, and it has to be followed strictly.

I think my kid might have celiac disease. What now?

The first step is obvious: Talk to your kid’s doctor. She can order a simple blood test that screens for celiac; in every province except Ontario, the test is free.

But don’t be surprised if she’s dismissive of your concerns. “Celiac is one of those diseases that can masquerade as many things for a long time,” says Calgary paediatrician Janice Heard. “Unless a doctor’s radar is really tuned into celiac, it’s easy to miss.” If you feel strongly about it, push for the blood test, advises Rashid. Or, skip the lab completely and hit up your drugstore. Some pharmacies carry an at-home celiac test.

Here’s what not to do if you suspect celiac disease: cut gluten from your kid’s daily menu. “When you remove gluten from the diet, your body will heal, and when you go for the blood test, it may be falsely negative,” says Rashid. Even after a positive test, kids should continue eating gluten until a procedure called an endoscopy officially confirms the diagnosis. Some parents banish gluten before any testing, just to see how their kid might react, but don’t be tempted. You’ll just have to reintroduce it before testing, and most kids feel much sicker when they eat gluten after having cut it out.

Is my kid going to hate the gluten-free diet?

Cutting out gluten is a bit harder than it sounds because the protein hides in so many different foods, like some condiments, chocolate bars and even rice cereal. Just like in families with food allergies, parents and, eventually, kids have to become expert ingredient-label readers, looking out for wheat, barley, rye, oats and triticale (a wheat-rye hybrid).

Events like birthday parties and school pizza lunches become a challenge. My seven-year-old son was diagnosed with celiac last September, and on top of missing some of his favourite treats—bye-bye, Timbits—he’s also still getting used to the social fallout of the diet. “I don’t really like bringing my own food everywhere, because I don’t want any attention,” he tells me.

But usually the positive changes in your kid make the effort worthwhile. “Alyson’s colour improved, the dark circles under her eyes got better, her cranky behaviour improved and she began eating on a normal schedule. She went from having no energy at all to dancing three days a week,” says Gariepy. As for my son, there haven’t been any dramatic changes so far, but it may be too early to see results; it can take a while for the body to heal. Still, the diet is the medicine he needs, since untreated celiac can cause stunted growth, malnutrition and even osteoporosis and cancer.

I can’t sugar-coat it: Getting told your kid has a lifelong disease sucks. But there’s a silver lining when that disease is celiac. In most cases, your kid will not be prescribed any medicines nor scheduled for any surgeries. He’ll simply need to stop eating gluten. It’s not a cure, but it’s a treatment that’s 100 percent effective. Personally, I like those odds.

Celiac? Or just sensitive?

Even after ruling out celiac disease, some parents remain convinced gluten is the culprit behind their child’s medical or behavioural problems. They may be right. In 2012, international researchers coined the term “non-celiac gluten sensitivity” to describe a condition that mimics celiac disease but is less severe—more like an intolerance. That said, more recent research questions whether the condition is real. Even the world’s foremost experts still aren’t sure, but there’s one thing they do agree on: Parents shouldn’t take gluten out of their kid’s diet without the guidance of their doctor.

Is celiac different from a wheat allergy?

Celiac disease is not the same as a wheat allergy. Celiac is a lifelong autoimmune condition in which gluten causes damage to the small intestine. A wheat allergy is an immune response to the protein in wheat and, like all allergies, can sometimes be outgrown.

A version of this article appeared in our January 2016 issue with the headline “Sneaky celiac” p. 24.



How to help your preschooler develop their handwriting skills

Don’t worry if your preschooler hasn’t mastered the basics of handwriting before kindergarten. But you can definitely practise the skills that will eventually improve their penmanship.

In the past week, my four-year-old, Maisie, and I have used cookie cutters to press various letters out of cheese, traced her name in shaving cream in the bathroom sink and crawled around the living room mooing like cows. Because the letter M is for “moo,” of course, and so far M is one of the few letters she can readily recognize.

Clearly, I’m trying very hard to spark some interest in the alphabet—and, in turn, writing. When her older sister started junior kindergarten, she could already write her name, but Maisie isn’t all that interested in handwriting. She would rather colour a unicorn, make a painting or very carefully change her outfit or the clothes on her dolls again (and again).

According to Nikki Martyn, program head of early childhood studies at the University of Guelph-Humber, this isn’t cause for concern. In fact, she says these types of play are excellent for developing pre-writing skills. “If your daughter can already do her buttons—and put on Barbie shoes—she’s that much closer to holding a pencil.”

As with most other early childhood development milestones, there’s a wide range of so-called normal. Some kids will master drawing and colouring and become proficient at penmanship early on, while others will keep building on these skills over the next few years, Martyn says. It’s important to resist the urge to compare their progress with other kids in their class.

Pre-writing skills are key to a child’s success with putting crayon to paper. For starters, they need good body control. “Sometimes when we’re talking about early writing skills, we forget that you first have to be able to sit and control your body,” says Martyn. In addition to muscle control, there’s also balance, attention and a bit of patience required. And the best way to develop these skills isn’t by sitting down with a workbook.

Building blocks, pegboard games, Play-Doh and Lego are excellent complementary play for almost-writers, says Martyn. “Another example that we’ve been seeing a lot of during the pandemic is cooking—having kids help to measure and mix ingredients,” she says. All of these activities involve developing fine motor control and using more precise movements, just like they’ll need for forming letters with a pencil.

In preschool or daycare, and then in kindergarten, cutting and pasting becomes a featured fine motor activity. “That novelty and physical sensation of cutting paper is really stimulating for them,” says Doug Ireland, a kindergarten teacher in Toronto. Another activity he uses in class to prep kids for handwriting is beading necklaces. “The act of holding a bead and putting it on a string requires a lot of fine motor skill,” says Ireland.

Kids will need to develop their grip a bit more before they can actually form their ABCs. Really young children, around 18 months, will start with a whole-hand grasp, but by age three or so, little kids are able to use their thumb, index finger and middle finger to pick up a piece of puzzle off the floor, for example, and that’s a big step closer to being able to write. Next it’s about holding a pencil, marker or crayon with those three fingers (called the tripod grip) in a more controlled way. You could also buy ergonomic pencil grips that may help.

The other parts of writing, like making the right shapes and spacing the letters, will come with practice over time, says Ireland. Children learn handwriting at their own pace, and most educators won’t worry as long as kids are making an effort and showing some progress.

If you want to spark interest and inspire your kid to try writing more often, create a variety of useful but playful pen-to-paper opportunities. You could keep a shopping list low on the fridge where they can add their requests, for example. Other ideas are writing short letters to a grandparent, or drawing and addressing a homemade card or gift tag for a friend’s birthday present. “If it’s something that’s real, it can be more meaningful, rather than an isolated activity like just copying their name,” says Ireland.

You’ll have even more success if you up the fun factor with scented markers, stickers or metallic glitter crayons—whatever it takes. You could also try writing names with bath crayons in the tub.

Someday soon, Maisie’s ABCs will come easily. But in the meantime, we’ll keep beading necklaces, creating her name out of chunks of cheddar and woofing together while “playing doggie,” because now she’s decided she likes the letter W in addition to the letter M.


Again, again! Why your kid wants to do the same activity over and over

Read the same book five times in one sitting? It can actually be helping your kid. Here's how to approach repetition without losing your sanity.

Cheri Bojcic’s four-year-old, Elana, has a favourite book: Fidgety Fish. She loves the quirky sea creatures, the colourful pictures, the engaging story. She’s memorized most of the words. When Fidgety swishes through the water, mom and daughter wiggle too. Luckily, Fidgety Fish is such a likeable book. Bojcic, of Chilliwack, BC, has had to read it to Elana a few times. Make that a few hundred times.

Mostly, we’re thrilled if a child wants an encore of a book or fingerplay. It means we’re doing something right, introducing her to the world of stories, words, rhythms. Still, after the 83rd time through, we may not feel quite so enthusiastic.

What’s the appeal of wanting to experience something again and again? It’s human nature to repeat things we enjoy. And it contributes to a child’s sense of security, says Catherine Lee, a University of Ottawa psychology professor and president-elect of the Canadian Psychological Association. “We are comforted by being able to predict the world.” (It works in similar ways for older kids too. You may have seen your preteen stomp to her room after a hard day at school so she can listen to a favourite piece of music over and over or watch High School Musical, again.)

Karin Borland, administrative coordinator of youth services at the Winnipeg Public Library, adds, “Children delight in repetition because whatever the activity is, it becomes a part of their memory and they learn to anticipate the details of the story, film or fingerplay—that’s fun. When they know what’s coming, they’re the master of that activity.”

Your toddler or preschooler loves the exciting ending of a nursery rhyme or the drop through your legs at the end of a knee bounce. But the shriek of delight isn’t because she’s surprised; it’s because she knows what’s coming, explains Borland. “What’s peekaboo if you only say it once? It’s nothing. The excitement builds because the child is thinking about what comes next.”

Repetition is the foundation of many aspects of learning, says Judith Wright, a literacy specialist with the Ontario Early Years Centres in London, Ont., and co-director of the London Suzuki Music Centre. “A baby needs 1,000 repetitions to learn a word; by the time he’s a toddler, he might need 50 repetitions; and when he’s in kindergarten, he may need only a few repetitions to master it because the brain connections have been laid out.” Parents help this process by singing the same song, reading the same story, reciting the same nursery rhyme—and repeating what the baby says back. “We do this intuitively,” says Wright. “A mother will say Mama and the baby will hear it 1,000 times before he says it—we don’t get tired of saying that!”

Wright sees the role repetition plays in development in her baby music classes. “When they master a song or rhythm—when they know it, can predict it, can do it all by themselves—they develop this powerful sense of their own competency, a confidence that they’re smart.”

There are important pre-reading skills in the pages of a favourite book, says Borland. “Each repetition gives kids another opportunity for learning the meaning and nuances of language. To learn to read easily, they have to know the meaning of what they’re reading—they can’t just do it as a mechanical drill.” Kids who’ve experienced repeated readings start school with an advantage, she adds.

They will go in recognizing words and letters from their memory. When the teacher says the word, it will click: ‘I know that word.’”

Over the years, repetition gives a kid confidence to take on tough tasks. Wright feels strongly that the skills her students learn through repetition take them far. “They learn that’s how you acquire a skill. They’re set up to know that if they don’t understand something, they can work at it and, with repetition, they really come through. That satisfaction sets them up with confidence for later learning—in school and beyond.”

The benefits of repetition are clear. What’s not so clear is how to get through the next dozen readings of a Dr. Seuss book you aren’t sure you loved the first time through. Our experts offer their suggestions.

Get creative with how you read it

Resist the temptation to avoid reading a fave book that has begun to fray your nerves. Instead, mix it up. Pretend to read the book backward, starting at the back and working forward. See what your child thinks—is it funny? Is he proud to point out your mistake? If the text rhymes, make a game of leaving out words and encourage your child to fill them in. Or don’t read the ending—ask your child to make one up.

One for you, one for me

At the library or bookstore, compromise—let your child pick some books and you pick some. And if your child wants to take home a favourite Christmas book in the spring—throw it on the pile.

Quality control at the onset

Choose quality books and music. If there’s a story you really can’t stand, try not to buy it. Parents ultimately have control over the initial exposure to annoying things, especially with very young children.

Don’t let it interfere with your routine

If you feel that your child is using storytime to prolong bedtime, limit repeat readings: “That’s enough. We’ll read it again tomorrow.”

Remind yourself of the benefits to your child

Trust us, it’ll help to pull you through. As you’re reading that bedtime story for the 100th time, focus on your child’s physical and emotional response. See how much he’s enjoying it, how he’s relaxing.

Most repetition shouldn’t worry you. Catherine Lee, president-elect of the Canadian Psychological Association, explains that the repetitive behaviours of the autism spectrum are unusual. “They strike us as odd and are behaviours that most children don’t do.”

If you think the repetition might be going overboard and becoming a compulsion although obsessive-compulsive disorder is more rare in children than in adults), ask yourself if it’s interfering with your child’s life. Question your friends to get a sense of what their children are doing. Preschoolers especially love the reassurance of familiar stories because they’re learning so many new skills. Lee says, “Repeated requests for Goodnight Moon are quite normal. On the other hand, a teen who compulsively reads the same book over and over—not just two or three times—might be a concern.”

This article was originally published in January 2008.


Your kids NEED to play—here's why

When you think of what kids need for healthy development—nutritious food, education, a loving home—play might not make the list. But it should.

Melissa Stenhouse knows how play can positively impact a kid. She’s seen it time and again in her role as program coordinator at Hamilton-based Today’s Family Early Learning and Child Care, a non-profit that offers child care and parental-support classes. But her favourite success story is about a girl named Zoey* and her love of pies.

Zoey was a grade four student in Stenhouse’s after-school program who had zero interest in reading. “We started to notice she was creating elaborate apparatuses out of blocks,” says Stenhouse, “and we figured out that she was building a set for a cooking show about pies.” So Stenhouse and her colleagues took it up a notch by adding baking—pies, specifically—to the program offerings. After they talked about what she would need to make a pie, Zoey learned to write out a recipe and began to show an interest in cookbooks; this led to an increase in her desire to read. “It was incredible,” says Stenhouse. “Expressing herself through play expanded her reading, and she won’t put her books down now.”

But improved literacy is just the tip of the jungle gym when it comes to the benefits of play. It’s no secret that play is integral to a child’s overall development—researchers have been reporting this fact for decades. A 20-year study published in November 2015 out of Pennsylvania State University and Duke University found a correlation between social competence (one of the benefits derived from play) in kindergartners and their success as adults. Play is used in innovative ways for kids with cognitive, emotional and physical challenges and in treatment for trauma and grief. The United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights declared play a basic human right of every child at the United Nations Convention on the Rights of The Child in November 1989.

When you think of what kids need—healthy food, education, a stable home—play might not make the list (but it should). Play is a kid’s most important job, yet it’s increasingly being threatened—by things like increased emphasis on academics, the proliferation of character toys over creative ones, and the trend toward overscheduling. But what is play exactly, and what can it do for your kid?

Play takes many forms, but at its core, it’s an activity that engages and challenges the mind. It can be completely child-directed, or it can be more ordered, with a set of instructions. It can be a solitary activity or a rousing game of make-believe with other kids. It can be producing and filming a YouTube video. If it gets your child to push the limits of the world they know, it’s play. And when given appropriate opportunities for it, it will help your kid grow in ways you would never have attributed to a set of LEGO® blocks or a sandbox. Read on for some of the key developmental benefits play can offer.

Illustration: Kinomi

Kids learn life skills

The Center on the Developing Child at Harvard University says children must be provided with chances for “scaffolding,” or activities that practise life skills. This includes engaging in creative play and having chances to direct their own actions with decreasing adult supervision and intervention. Unstructured play, especially, helps with the development of executive function—fostering self-regulation (such as a person’s ability to stay calm and focused in stressful situations) and emotional coping, as well as problem-solving and planning abilities.

“Executive function happens in the frontal cortex: Those are your most important skills for making your way through life,” says Melissa Healy, a child and family psychotherapist with Canoe Therapy in Burlington, Ont. “If we’re not able to offer experiences that help foster those skills, research has shown that children will fall behind developmentally.”

In her therapy practice, Healy uses child-directed play, a method that’s also popular in academic circles. Many educators specifically reference the Reggio Emilia Approach when integrating open-ended play into their curricula. The Reggio Emilia philosophy says that this type of child-directed exploration is essential for development. The school of thought was developed after the Second World War in the Reggio Emilia region of Italy. A teacher named Loris Malaguzzi worked with parents to build schools that provided kids with a new way of learning that would encourage democratic thinking. He believed children are endowed with “a hundred languages” of expression—or a multitude of ways to relate to the world around them—and that for an education philosophy to be successful, kids had to have a degree of control and be treated as apprentices rather than the subjects of instruction. The philosophy is centred on respecting kids as resourceful individuals who can help guide their own learning; on positive relationships between kids, parents and teachers; and on treating the kids’ surroundings as a “third teacher.”

Stenhouse’s program is based on this educational philosophy. She and her colleagues treat the kids like they’re capable and competent, and try to give them real experiences—like Zoey having the opportunity to bake a pie—whenever they can. “It really is amazing,” she says. “We’ve found that, for most kids, when they’re doing something they’re interested in, behaviour issues often disappear.”

Communication comes from play

Learning to communicate effectively—to express thoughts and feelings, to learn how to gracefully insert yourself into a social situation or conversation, to ask for what you need or want—is vital to a successful adult life. “If a child just jumps into a group and takes a toy, the other kids are going to immediately expel him from that group,” says Daniel Chorney, a child psychologist in Halifax. “Learning to approach people and ask, ‘Can I play with you?’ is a huge communication skill that has lifelong importance.” Communication also includes the ability to pick up on social cues and to read facial and body language. All of this begins on the playground.

Chorney says giving kids a taste of all types of social situations —playdates, structured activities, free play—is important, but parents can also do skills training at home. “If a kid is really struggling with a specific thing (like asking to be included), a parent and child can role-play and practise acting out the problem. Then they can approach the dilemma in the real world and regroup after.”

Kids learn to resolve conflict

A long-term study from the University of Maryland found that between 1981 and 2003, children’s free time has dropped from 57 hours a week to 48, with outdoor play declining a whopping 37 percent. This type of unstructured, unmonitored play not only instills independence in kids but also helps them develop other important abilities, including developing appropriate problem-solving behaviours rather than always looking to an adult to manage circumstances for them.

Healy gives an explanation of how play, especially child-directed play, can help a kid learn lifelong skills: “Say you’re at the park, and another child pushes your child. The automatic reaction of the parent is to jump in and tell that other child to stop pushing, but that’s not helpful. It just proves that, ‘When someone pushes me, Mom’s going to swoop in and save me.’ But the reality is, Mom isn’t always going to be there.” You want kids to be able to handle these conflicts on their own. Children who haven’t had the experience to problem-solve in play situations will automatically look to an authority figure to take care of things, but children who have been faced with this type of confrontation during playtime are able to deal with it better.

Kids also learn the power of social censure on the playground. “Most of the time, if there’s a kid who’s consistently mean to others, that child is going to get excluded,” says Chorney. “If someone is too pushy, another child is going to correct that behaviour naturally. An understanding of logical social consequences should develop when we’re kids.”

TP09_Power of play_Secondary_660x660

Illustration: Kinomi

Play helps with bonding

Play is a proven means for parents and educators to connect with kids. Healy finds that play is essential to building rapport with her clients. “Often, sitting down to have a conversation with a child about how they feel just doesn’t work,” she says. In therapy, play helps build connection and trust. “If, through play, we can better understand a child’s thoughts and feelings, that’s successful therapy. It’s also successful parenting.”

Play can be an important part of the relationship between a parent and child, too. Chorney often advises parents with kids struggling with behavioural issues to set aside time daily to just play one-on-one with them. This is part of an evidence-based treatment called Parent Management Training (programs like The Incredible Years, or Parent-Child Interaction Therapy, fall under this approach). These therapies focus on strengthening parents’ bond with their child as a means of improving emotional and behavioural problems.

“I’ll often suggest taking at least 15 minutes a day, with no distractions, to play something together that’s co-operative, that doesn’t have rules attached to it, where you don’t have to ask a lot of questions or give a lot of commands or criticisms.” That means board games are out, but you could build with blocks, make crafts or even just colour together. This shared fun time strengthens the attachment between parent and child, which encourages kids to look for positive attention from parents rather than seeking the spotlight by misbehaving.

This shared time can be as important for parents as it is for kids. “I have parents who will say, ‘I love my kid, but sometimes I hate them,’” says Chorney. “I’ll often tell them to go home and try this method because they’re going to laugh; they’re going to connect; they’re going to feel like they’re five years old again. It will help to remind them why they became a parent in the first place. It’s the kid equivalent of date night.”

Play increases kids’ capacity for learning

A 2007 report in the medical journal Pediatrics focusing on the importance of play in promoting healthy child development says, “play is integral to the academic environment. It has been shown to help children adjust to the school setting and even enhance children’s learning readiness, learning behaviours and problem-solving skills.”

The academic system in Finland—which is touted as one of the best in the world, with consistently high international assessment results—is a case in point. Because the Finns believe play is a valuable educational medium for young kids, children don’t start formal school until age seven (before that, they’re in pre-primary education, which has a focus on play). The school day is also typically structured in 45-minute blocks, with 15 minutes of free time between each period. The idea is that these breaks help kids stay focused during classroom time. But play is a form of education out of the classroom, too.

Deborah McCoy, a lifelong early childhood educator and the assistant vice-president for education at The Strong National Museum of Play in Rochester, NY, believes in kids helping direct their own learning. The Strong, which is a history museum but also an institution with a mission to focus on development through play, also uses the Reggio Emilia philosophy when creating its programs.

“We feel that imaginative play, especially, is really critical to building representational abilities,” says McCoy, “which is just a fancy way of describing using one thing to represent another, which is the foundation of literacy. It’s really important for kids to think in stories and act out stories. To do this spontaneously through play is really the best way, because it’s innate in children. Our job is to set up environments to support that.”

Exhibits in the museum include opportunities for arts and crafts, science experiments, sensory play (one of the areas, called Build, Drive, Go, even has a giant gravel pit kids can muck about in), and dress-up and imaginative play.

The Strong also has a part-time preschool called Woodbury School, where kids engage in fun activities set in the museum’s exhibits and teachers hold storytelling workshops. The instructors use play as the first step in teaching kids how to create plot lines—they provide items like figurines as inspiration and the kids are encouraged to tell the stories they’ve come up with. Teachers then write them down, which opens up even more opportunities for learning.

“Kids can read their stories back; they can read stories to their friends,” says McCoy. “It literally translates into their ability to read and write.”

There are so many benefits to regularly integrating play into a child’s day. As Chorney says, “Play is practice for real life.” It doesn’t have to take long, and often it just means standing back and letting your kid take the wheel. Sounds like a piece of cake, right? Or maybe a piece of pie.

Illustration: Kinomi

Illustration: Kinomi

Take 45 minutes to try

Unstructured play

Collect all of your empty cereal and tissue boxes, as well as paper towel and toilet paper rolls, or try to get your hands on a large appliance box. Set out the boxes, paint, markers, scissors (if the kids are old enough), glue, tape and jars of buttons and beads, and let your kids have at it. If they’re having a hard time getting started, give them a broad theme, like space or jungle.

Group or team play

Sit kids in a circle, and tell them they’re going to create a brand new game using a couple of balls, a skipping rope and a hula hoop (or whatever other active toys you have lying around). Each person is allowed to make up one or two rules. Write down the rules as the kids brainstorm and then try the game out. Decide together what works and what doesn’t.

Art or drawing

Place each child in front of a large mirror with a handful of dry-erase markers. Challenge the kids to draw their self-portraits by tracing their facial shape, features and hair. Add another element by encouraging them to enhance their image with items that reflect what they want to be when they grow up. Chef’s hat? Check! Stethoscope? You got it.

Role-play and make-believe

Find an old laundry hamper and fill it with a variety of old clothing and accessories. Tell kids to act out the characters they might find in a waiting room (or a restaurant, an office, a house, a classroom, etc.). Stand back and take pictures or videos or write down what the kids chose to be or do to remind them about it if they get stuck for ideas the next time they’re playing.

* names have been changed


A version of this article appeared in our September 2016 issue, titled “The power of play,” pg. 73-76.

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