Developing critical skills for young children at home

GULFPORT, MS (WLOX) - Whether you're a working parent, or a stay at home mom, it's vital that you spend time with your children every day - especially when they're young - developing their speech and motor skills. It's never too early to start.

Debby Renfroe, co-founder of Excel by 5, came to my house recently for a play date with my two-year-old son, Austin.  She showed us some fun, inexpensive ways parents can help children grow up happy, healthy, and ready to learn.

The first activity was a toy that simulated fishing. Austin loved that! He thought it was fun to magically pluck the fish from a bowl, using a Velcro rod. But what he didn't realize is that the game was a way to develop some critical skills he'll need before going to kindergarten.

Debby Renfroe was a Kindergarten teacher for 30 years, so she knows exactly what's expected of students by the time they reach age five.

"Children at this age are developing so rapidly, and their little brains are growing so quickly, that you want to be sure you're doing everything you can to expand that language development which is really key - and maybe one of the most important parts of children's development," explains Renfroe.

She brought a bag filled with goodies to demonstrate some ways parents can develop those skills at home. Square blocks, for instance are excellent for stacking and building. Or, Renfroe says you can just go to your kitchen for a handy learning tool.

"Something as simple as measuring cups, you know, that you have at the house, parents can use. Just take them apart, and let them stack them, and talk about what's big and what's little and what fits."

Another house hold item to use - socks. For this game, Renfroe says all you have to do is grab some of your socks, mix them in with some of your child's socks, and then let them sort by size and color.

"But you just say, we have big socks and we have small socks. Give me all the socks. Or give me all of your socks. Sorting is a really important patterning skill for children this age too, and it's one they can do."

Renfroe says nursery rhymes and signing are also easy, yet effective ways to develop rhythm and a sense of pattern, both good developmental skills.

"If you begin singing and reading to your child, even when they're teeny tiny, even sometimes when they're in the womb, we recommend that you sing those same songs over and over again.  Say those nursery rhymes. We've found a lot of times when they begin Kindergarten, they don't know any of their nursery rhymes."

And finally, books.

"Reading to your child every day is so important. And for parents who are busy, who don't have a lot of time to spend with their children, reading every night before they go to bed - even just five or ten minutes - just makes a world of difference in that language development," says Renfroe.

Every one of the books and toys Renfroe brought to my house was free. All she did was check them out at the Toy Lending Library at the Family Resource Center in Moss Point.

Thanks to Excel by 5, there are also toy lending libraries in Pascagoula at the Family Interactive Center, and in Biloxi at the old Lopez Elementary School. There's also one at Mississippi Gulf Coast Community College's Jeff Davis campus in Gulfport.

If you'd like to learn more about the statewide initiative to bring more resources like this to families, just click here to learn about Excel by 5.

Renfroe suggests the following web sites for parents wanting to learn more about helping their children grow up happy, healthy, and ready to learn.