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Q&A: Giving your child a good start

This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.

The Notebook interviewed Kathy Hirsh-Pasek, who is a Temple University psychology professor, director of the Infant Language Laboratory, and author of several books about how children learn. She offered tips for parents of young children regarding daycare, preschool, and activities to do at home.

Notebook: What should I look for in a pre-K or child care center?

Hirsh-Pasek: The first thing I look for in a pre-K is, “Is it safe?” You want to make sure there aren’t things literally swept under rugs, things that are accessible that shouldn’t be, things that look dangerous.

The second thing is, “Are the teachers loving?” Children learn best in an environment where they can build strong relationships. Those relationships are obviously with teachers.

The third thing has got to be the teacher-student ratio. [There are state guidelines depending on the age of the children, from infancy up.] Make sure there are not so many kids roaming around that they are overwhelming the teacher and the teacher cannot possibly give them enough time to speak with them, learn their interests, and allow them to behave in stimulating ways.

The next thing is to judge how many children are in one room. You can have an adult-child ratio that is fine, but there are 30 kids stuffed into one space. So you should look separately at both issues, the adult-child ratio and how many children are in one room.

I would also look to see if there is natural light and that the room has balls and books and puzzles. Puzzles and blocks are very important for young children. That’s the way they learn spatial information and early math.

I would see if there is a good outdoor playground with safe equipment. What there should not be is a television.

What about home day care?

There’s nothing wrong with home day care. But you should see the back yard to make sure it is safe, know that there is a loving teacher, and that the environment is cognitively stimulating. You don’t want a place that is more like a warehouse, but a place that is going to give your children loving joy.

What should I be asking a teacher about my child?

“Is my child happy? Does my child have friends? Who are my child’s friends? Is my child engaged during the day? What does he or she like to do?”

You want to know how well the child is getting along and developing social behaviors, or the “soft skills” that are the bedrock for “hard skills.” If you have a sense of the child’s day, that not only enriches the conversation you can have at home, but it also shows what you can do at home to blur the lines between home and school.

What can I do to help my child learn to read?

The most important thing we can do with respect to building readers is to be readers. We have to read books to our children. Sometimes I may feel that my reading level is not there; I can’t do that. So I get a picture book and tell a story in my home language. Rich conversation in any language will build literacy skills. The important thing is to have conversations and to have them around books. This is always a lovely, special time.

When I’m looking at schools, I want to know if books are around, if my child has a chance to get to those books, if parents have a chance to borrow the books and take them home. The most important thing to do is to use libraries ourselves and see where a book can take us to places we would never go otherwise.

How can I incorporate literacy into everyday activities?

There is a lot we can do that we don’t do enough of. When you are walking with your child, ask what she is looking at and comment on it. If it is a slug, and you hate it, talk about that.
If you are cooking dinner, that is an amazing opportunity to talk about food and ingredients. When you do that, show the importance of reading so you can follow the recipe.

When you are shopping, realize what we can do in a supermarket. It’s as rich as a children’s museum. There are things to weigh. There are cans piled up. You can count them. There are labels and prices to read. You don’t want to force-feed your child information, but you do want to look for teachable moments.

Are there any don’ts?

Don’t always ask children for the one right answer. Make it a conversation. Don’t not involve your children in what you are doing. When you do involve them, they learn more. Don’t keep them out of the kitchen while you are cooking. Set up one little drawer that is theirs, keep one wooden spoon in it. … They can be part of everything. When we invite children in, they are learning from us.

A lot of things we already do are pretty terrific for building interactions with young children. We need to change the lens. When we see a supermarket as a children’s museum, or a doctor’s visit as a wonderful opportunity, all of a sudden, the world is pregnant with stimulating ideas for rich conversation. Spend less time directing them and more time having conversations with them.

Look in their eyes and put the cell phone away and see what would happen if you carved out just 10 minutes to be there for the child.

Final tips for parents?

Puzzles, blocks, crumpled aluminum foil, boxes are absolutely amazing things. Building forts from couches. Romping in leaves in the fall, then talking about it, bringing the leaves inside, ironing the leaves. It’s the stuff we don’t often think about that sometimes bring the richest interactions.

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