When my oldest child turned one a friend gave him alphabet magnets for his birthday. We placed them on the refrigerator and he'd reach for them, so we moved them lower, showing him first how magnets work. Soon they ended up on the kitchen floor and seeing the 26 letters brought the ordering of them and the alphabet song to mind. I'd sing the ABCs and point to each letter as it was said.
Without really meaning to, just by playing simple games like this, our little baby knew his ABCs before he could talk. Family would visit and marvel that at 18 months our son could easily identify any one of the 26 letters of the alphabet, whether it was upside down, right-side-up, or sideways. No matter what, his pudgy little hand pointed to the right letter time and again when asked.
Today that same son is in middle school has always done excellent academically. He is the only child in his grade to go to the district Spelling Bee every year since first grade, and his younger fourth grade brother is the only child in his grade too. Did we buy fancy curriculum or pound facts into them like drill sergeants? No. I firmly believe the everyday games and skills I've worked on with all four of my children at home, starting with those alphabet letters, are why they all were more than prepared for kindergarten but more importantly, why they are all lovers of learning.
More than ever parents need that extra boost to help their kids prepare for school. We live in California and my kids go to public school. I have never spent money on outside tutors or on expensive curriculum. Budgets continue to be slashed, which has meant larger class sizes and less individual attention for my children. Yet, with the core building blocks I have worked on with them at home they are still thriving in school.
Games are so important to a child's development. We have a coffee table in the family room. Even if the television is on or we only have a few minutes, there are easy ways to play. Here are some of the games that have been great teaching tools without my kids even knowing it:
1. Go Fish- this card game helps kids sort and it helps them think ahead, or strategize. This kind of critical thinking is what many schools sorely lack. Schools often ask kids rote memorization questions, but critical thinking is the muscle that when flexed causes big learning.
2. Uno- I started with my son when he was 3. We had an actual Uno deck of cards with the color coordinated cards. You can also play Crazy Eights with a deck of cards. Just like Uno but eights are wild cards. Kids learn card suits with this game, which is a good skill to have.
3. Kings in the Corner- this game spreads across the table, showing kids the order of cards. It is pattern practice as well. The cards must be laid out black, red, black, red, and from Kings down to Aces. Even young children 3 and over can grasp this. Their later teachers will be impressed they are already familiar with pattern formations too.
4. Old Maid- deal all of the cards. Each person picks a card from the opponent to their left and discards pairs until one person is left with the Old Maid. With the set we have, Ursula from the little mermaid is the old maid. Young children may have a hard time holding all their cards so have them place them on a table with something to block them from view. The rest of the game is easy enough and it will excite kids about cards, strategy, and help practice good sportsmanship.
5. Work on a puzzle together- some families I know always have a puzzle out on the coffee table.
6. Blow bubbles
7. Invest in a magnetic erase board like the Magna Doodle- tons of fun and you aren't using any paper. I used this toy with the kids so often I even wrote an article- Ode to the Magna Doodle. Starting about 18 months you can play one of baby's first games with it- I call the game day/night. Black out the screen and say "Night." With one swipe erase and say "Daytime!" Kids even that little will chuckle- it's so cute. Soon thereafter kids understood light and dark- as soon as they're old enough to walk, they can help sort laundry after this game. We have the daytime (lights) pile and the nighttime (darks) pile to this day.
8. Hangman- another great game on a magnetic erase board like a Magna Doodle. Very young children can play hangman with 2 and 3 letter words. Older children can play for longer words and phrases. Turn the table and let your child make up the word. When they're young, they may misspell the word, "but there has to be a vowel!" It's great practice and they'll get it soon enough
9. Yahtzee- Today you don't have to buy the full game. You can print the score sheet off the Internet and grab 5 dice. Bunco is also very close to, and less complicated, than Yahtzee. Dice games like these help with early Math.
10. Scrabble- great about 5 or 6 on. Encourage one app for your older child- Words With Friends and play with them.
11. Memory- Starting at 3 years old, this is sure to be a favorite. There are inexpensive memory games targeted to boys, girls, or gender neutral.
12. Play Monkey in the Middle with a third person- throw the ball over one person's head. If she catches it, she doesn't have to be the monkey anymore.
13. Dots and Boxes- my 4-year-old loves this game. The person to close the square gets to put his or her initials, which claims the square once it's time to tally up the boxes. You can play with older kids too by adding more squares. It's great for teaching kids to think strategically. (show image)
14. Pictionary- write simple 3 letter words like "pig" "lip" for 3 year olds to read and then draw. For older kids write out more complicated words and phrases.
15. Play Sorry. At four years old my kids have been able to play this game. With the four pieces having to make it around the board before someone wins, it's helped them learn to problem solve as well as early reading. The Sorry cards are straight forward "move forward 3 places." They see the number and then start to recognize words like "forward."
16. Say patterns out loud. A, B, A, B, See if your child knows A to be next in the pattern. You may also do with numbers. 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, _. As they get older try, banana, apple, orange, banana, apple, ___? My daughter begs to play this game whenever we're in the car.
Julie Samrick is a stay-at-home mom of four young kids and the founder of Kid Focused, a site devoted to children and family issues. Subscribe to the free Kid Focused newsletter delivered weekly to your inbox and connect with us on Facebook too. Permission granted for use on DrLaura.com.