Home Chores Build a Good Work Ethic

It’s an ages-old debate: should kids be required to do regular chores around the house? My short answer is yes. Mom’s time is too valuable to be wasted on menial tasks. That doesn’t mean that Mom can’t or shouldn’t do them, but it does mean that those tasks that don’t require Mom’s unique talents can be done by anyone, not only by Mom. However, kids will need to be taught how to do a task correctly before they can succeed in it themselves.

Doing chores teaches skills, responsibility, and independence. Some day, for some unforeseen reason, Mom won’t be able to perform all of the household chores and pick up after everyone else. Whether that condition is temporary (such as a case of the flu) or more-or-less permanent (a debilitating health condition… or worse), Mom needs everyone’s help in keeping up. Incidentally, all those things Mom does are things the kids will eventually need to do for themselves in life, so they might as well suck it up and start doing them now to lessen the blow of reality. They might even find that ironing a few shirts provides an ideal time to organize their thoughts, besides making them look sharp at the job interview.

There’s a principle in economics called TANSTAAFL (say it as “tan-stay-awful”), an acronym for “There Ain’t No Such Thing As A Free Lunch.” I applied it to home chores as there are no free rides: everybody can do his share. If you plan to eat this food, you’ll willingly help carry the groceries in from the car and help put them away. As my kids got older, it morphed into “Hey, Mom! I’ll do that job for you, so you can do this job for me,” whenever my kids wanted me to help them with a special project (often making a new costume). They would lay out their proposal and then offer to do something for me (often making dinner), providing me with the necessary free time to bring their idea to fruition. Helping (bartering?) in this way taught them the vital concept of earning: you have to give to get something in return. The job-trading offers showed that they understood the most important part: every player is capable of contributing something to the Family Team.

Starting Young

My kids learned to help put toys away as soon as they were old enough to play with those toys. We stored our toys on open shelves in an assortment of shoeboxes, ice cream buckets, small dishpans, and recycled baby-wipes boxes, each labeled with a simple drawing for what items went inside. I worked side-by-side with my toddlers or preschool-aged kids to help them learn to sort out the toys and get everything put away (nearly) every afternoon before Daddy got home. They could still get something out to play with while I fixed supper, but the worst of the mess had been cleaned up. We made clean-up time into a game by calling out one type of toy and getting all of those put away before focusing on another one, starting with the largest items and working down to the smallest. Then as the kids got older and more adept at sorting and multitasking, they could handle the clean-up tasks themselves, freeing Mom to start cooking or laundry or any other higher-skilled task. By the time my kids were both school age, I had come up with a new clean-up game: I would challenge each of them to run through the house and find ten things that belonged to them and put those away. With a little more growing up, that game became known as 52-Pick-Up and was expanded to include anything that was out of place, if they knew where it belonged, not just their own personal items. They learned to appreciate the look of a tidy home and enjoyed the peacefulness that came with it, so it wasn’t difficult to get them to participate, especially because we played it as a game, and I praised them and thanked them for their diligence. Who doesn’t like being praised and thanked for their efforts? No one here!!

A child who never learns organizational skills grows up to be an adult who still doesn’t know how to organize or clean—I know because I was one. It is because I have struggled as an adult to learn how to organize myself that I began teaching my kids organizational skills as soon as they could pick up an alphabet block and drop it into a box. We played that first as a game to learn coordination, and then we continued to play it later on as a clean-up game.

Later on, I made each child a picture-chart for the bedroom wall to help them learn how to tidy things up in their rooms. A sheet of paper with simple cartoon-drawings showed a bed with wadded-up blankets and an arrow pointing to a neatly made bed, a jumble of clothes on the floor and an arrow pointing to the hamper, a pile of books on the floor and an arrow pointing to books on a shelf. Simple, homemade, but very effective. Teaching them to make the bed first provided a large surface to use for further sorting duties, again working from largest objects to smallest. My younger child felt it was a rite-of-passage, growing-up milestone when he got a picture-chart for his room—he was a big boy now, and he was old enough to learn how to tidy up his own room. He was still far from reading words, but he could read those pictures!

Learning Life-Skills

Yes, it does take longer to do a task with a child than it does to do it yourself. However, the time that is dedicated to teaching the child how to do the task himself will pay off in the days, weeks, months, and years to come. By spending the extra time required to teach my children how to do a task, I was ultimately freeing myself from doing that task in the future. Yes, I can pull a full bag of trash from the kitchen wastebasket, take it to the outdoor garbage can, and replace a new bag within a matter of seconds. Teaching my child to do that chore and walking him through each step could take ten minutes. However, he will get faster with practice, and I can eventually stop supervising and move on to my own tasks for those valuable ten minutes. Even if I only spent thirty seconds emptying the trash myself, that time adds up. If I include emptying every wastebasket in the house and if a larger family means more trash, that can become a serious waste of Mom’s time and talents. More importantly, the children won’t learn to take on the responsibility for that chore.

My kids learned to do many household chores through the years: keeping their rooms tidy; emptying the trash; emptying and filling the dishwasher; sweeping or vacuuming; dusting; cleaning bathrooms; mowing the lawn; carrying and putting away groceries; sorting, washing, drying, folding, hanging, ironing, and putting away laundry; and many other chores that I can’t remember. Some of these jobs were regularly scheduled tasks, and sometimes the kids were just asked to help out with other tasks. Yes, they needed reminders occasionally—we all do. Yes, there were times when they grumbled—we all do. Yes, there were times when Mom still did the job herself—the object here is teaching skills and responsibility, not giving Mom a life of unlimited leisure while someone feeds her grapes and fans her with palm fronds. Yes, there were times when a job wasn’t done perfectly—but that’s not the point—the point is that they learned how to do these chores, and they learned to own tasks as their responsibilities. Family is a team, with all players contributing something to the team; it is a tremendous help if those players can be interchangeable in certain areas. When everyone knows how to do a certain chore, life won’t ever come to a grinding halt while we all wait for the one, single soul who can perform the required task and get us all rolling along smoothly again.

This process of learning how to do chores is important for more reasons than just sharing in household duties as a child. This process is teaching life-long skills in decision-making, organizing, and taking responsibility. No one wants to live with an adult who thinks that if he ignores things long enough, the Trash Fairy will come and make the mess magically disappear. Or the Laundry Fairy, or the Dirty Dishes Fairy. Moms, if you don’t teach your children now how to do chores and how to take responsibility for doing them, who will? Do you believe that allowing your children to be sloths and doing everything for them will somehow transform them into conscientious adults? I’m sorry if this offends you, but if this is currently the case at your house, you are already being offended by children who disrespect you and treat you as their maid. The new guy on the job who leans back in his chair and rests his feet on his desk is an only-slightly-older version of the preteen who played incessant video games amidst empty soda cans, dirty dishes, and smelly socks, while an overworked Mom cleaned up around him. The young adult who expects to draw a paycheck while texting or checking social media on his cellphone is the same kid who never lifted a finger to help Mom or Dad with anything around the house—and worse, was never required to help.

What you teach your toddlers is what your youngsters will do automatically, and what you teach your youngsters is what your teens will do automatically, and what you teach your teens is what your young adult children will do automatically. It begins with sorting toys and putting them away, then progresses through taking out the trash and shuffling loads of laundry, and grows into someone who notices a task that is not being done and takes on the responsibility without waiting to be told that it’s his duty. I have known bosses who swept the floor because the lower-level employees didn’t think it was their duty to sweep. Sometimes it may not your assigned task, but you do have all the talent required. Teach your kids do look for tasks they can do at home, because it will pay benefits in the long run. As employees in that all-important first job, they will receive more positive feedback from taking the initiative to do a task (or asking if it’s okay to do it) than they will from standing around and waiting until someone else tells them to do it.

How to Do the How-To’s…

Start small—don’t expect your inexperienced teen to understand how to do multiple loads of laundry if he’s never had to hang up a single shirt. If your teen doesn’t know how to do laundry, start by showing him how to fold towels and work up from there. Help him master each crucial step before adding in more complications. It’s never fair or just or right to scold someone for doing a task incorrectly, if he’s never been properly taught how to do it.

Show & Tell—demonstrate the task and explain the critical parts. Example: explaining that a clothes hanger is a substitute for shoulders can teach how to hang a shirt straight. Talk about the various steps of the tasks you’re doing and explain the why’s for each step. Kids are more likely to do it your way if they understand the reasons behind why you do it the way you do it. I fold the towels this way so they will fit into this skinny cupboard. Also, specify which steps are required to be done a certain way and which steps can be done as the child wishes—giving him freedom to make it his job, not yours. It’s also helpful to the Family Team concept to listen to others’ suggestions of different methods. Mom is not God, and Mom can learn shortcuts from her spouse or kids. Been there, done that, changed my ways.

Let him try it—and don’t expect perfection or speed. Re-demonstrate any steps that are really crucial. Simple charts can come in handy here, too, such as how much detergent to put in the washer, what settings to use for different loads, and a reminder to clean out the dryer’s lint filter.

Give reminders—without nagging. No one enjoys being nagged. Set a very basic schedule for repeated tasks, such as “Make sure to empty all the wastebaskets and take the trash out by Thursday mornings, because the trash collection truck comes right after lunch on Thursdays.”

Say a sincere thank you—because everyone enjoys being appreciated. Hey, the trash is already emptied—and I didn’t even see you do that! Thank you!!

Keep it simple for success—even very complicated tasks can be learned one step at a time. Allow your child to keep trying until he gets a task done correctly, but do it by encouraging his progress, rather than scolding him for his failures. We worked for mastery in our homeschool lessons, believing that a concept wasn’t fully learned until a score of 100% had been reached. However, the child got to keep trying and keep correcting his work until he had mastered it. The same philosophy was used in learning chores and other tasks: keep trying until you get it right, keep working until you get it done. My daughter now works in a retail clothing store with many high-school-aged co-workers, and she finds their attitudes of “a just-barely-passing grade is good enough” to be completely unsatisfactory. Her work ethic of “keep at it until the job is done right” shows that she takes responsibility and personal pride in how the store looks and in how she serves her customers.

Teach your kids to be industrious by being industrious yourself—laziness breeds laziness. Don’t treat your kids as your servants by always asking them to fetch-and-carry for you, if you are fully capable of getting up and doing the same things yourself.


Teaching kids to help at home teaches them how to learn from others, something that will be very valuable in their future jobs. Teaching kids to do their assigned chores in a timely manner teaches them responsibility, again a valuable future skill. Teaching them to look for unassigned tasks they can do teaches them to take initiative, the most valuable skill of all. Being teachable, taking responsibility, and taking initiative combine to form an excellent work ethic, whether your child grows up to become a stay-at-home spouse or a corporate executive, and it starts with learning to pick up toys.

See also (in no particular order):

The Importance of Play in Education
Spoken Destinies & Learned Behaviors
Family Is Spelled T-E-A-M
Sorting Toys Is Algebra
I Give One Grade: 100%—But You Get to Keep Trying Until You Get It
Using Your Household Staff
Biblical Model of Discipleship
Pregnant & Homeschooling (great ideas for delegating, even if you’re not pregnant)
Full-Bodied Education: Mind, Body, & Spirit
We’re Not Raising Children – We’re Raising Adults
Respect Must Be Earned (good look at our attitudes toward each other)
Taming the Laundry Monster

Encouragement Corner: Should My Child Go to Preschool?

Encouragement Corner posts are sort of a mini-seminar for the busy moms who can’t spare the time or expense to go to a major homeschooling conference, but who still need answers to their biggest questions. We’ll be grouping a few of the most-often-recommended articles around a central issue and making those articles easier to share on Pinterest by adding a photo or graphic as needed.

I’m seeing a disturbing trend. More and more families are sending their babies off to preschool at younger and younger ages—sometimes as young as two years old. Now tell me what skills a preschool teacher could possibly impart to two- or three-year-olds that Mom couldn’t do better, faster, and cheaper? Spare me the argument that Mom has to work—that’s another topic for another day (besides, that simply means that the preschool is a more expensive version of day-care, yet another topic for yet another day). I’m really confused by why any parent would think a child of 2 or 3 needs preschool, or why that parent needs to shell out their hard-earned paycheck for someone else to teach their child of 2 or 3 to identify the red ball or the blue square or to count to 10 or sing Old MacDonald Had a Farm.

Yes, my children did both attend preschool, but not at age 2 or even 3, and if I could do it over again, I wouldn’t send them anywhere. My daughter was 4, my son was 5 (late birthday), and they each went for only one year before moving on to Kindergarten. (We also weren’t planning to homeschool at that time, and homeschooling hadn’t even become legal in our state yet.) I’m not sure that my kids gained anything from their preschool experiences—my daughter’s preschool teacher remarked that she often felt that she didn’t need to show up, since my child was a suitable substitute. My son’s preschool class included our friends’ brother-sister twins, who had just turned 3, and my son could be a teensy bit resentful at times that those little kids were in his school class. It was a small class with a wide age range, but there is a huge difference between what 3-year-olds can do and understand and what 5-year-olds can do and understand.

I had sent my kids to preschool as preparation for Kindergarten, for the group experiences of sitting in circles and learning to wait for their turn. As it turned out, I shouldn’t have wasted the money—they were already much better prepared than most of their classmates. The things we had done at home as normal childhood playing were excellent preparation for preschool, for Kindergarten, and for learning in general. I had been holding them in my lap for “story time” from the moment they could focus on a picture book, and it was our daily settling-down session before naptime. I talked about the pictures and pointed out colors and shapes and girls and boys and bears and mice and bowls and hats long before my babies knew what I was talking about, but they loved the lap time, and they learned vocabulary and language, as well as colors, shapes, animals, and objects. We had played games at home, and they had learned to take turns, even when Mom was their only playmate. We had played make-believe with toy dishes and toy tools and dress-up clothes. We had played on swings and walked on a balance beam (a board lying flat on the ground) and climbed on monkey bars and jumped on hopscotch squares on the sidewalk. We had kicked balls, thrown balls, batted balls, rolled balls, and caught balls. We had drawn and colored and painted and sculpted and glued and cut with scissors. Seriously, what else could they possibly have learned at preschool that they didn’t already know? That Mom was too busy to spend time with them? That Mom’s job was more important than they were? That children are supposed to be shuttled off away from home and locked in an institutional classroom for so many hours each day to be looked after by strangers?

Here are the most important things to know about teaching your children:

  • Children can not learn more at school, even preschool, than they can learn at home, and no advanced degree is necessary for teaching a child to sing the alphabet song.
  •  The theory that “Everyone sends their kids to school” is mob mentality that deserves to be questioned. Why does everyone else send their kids to school? It certainly isn’t for the superior outcome.
  • The theory that “If you don’t send your kids to school, you’re trying to hold onto them as babies, and you’re afraid to let them grow up” is also flawed. I happen to think that 2- to 3-year-olds (for preschool) or even 5- or 6-year-olds (for Kindergarten) are much too young to take on the world. Those children need to be at home with Mom, discovering who they are and learning how to react to the world at large under Mom’s protective care. Yes, I’m saying it blatantly: children need to be kept under Mom’s wing until they are ready to be on their own. It certainly didn’t hurt George Washington or Abraham Lincoln or Thomas Edison (or countless others throughout history who didn’t go to institutional schools) to stay home with their mothers.
  • Those uncomfortable knots in your stomach do not mean that you will succumb to loneliness and despair during the 2 ½-3 hours while Little Darling is gone to Preschool each day. That anxiety is trying to tell you that sending your little one off to school is a bad idea in general. Preschool is essentially a “gateway drug” to get parents accustomed to the idea of giving up their children to the control of the institution—why else do you think it’s being pushed for younger and younger children?
  • Yet another theory says “That school has good teachers—their values are just like yours.” I had 30+ different teachers and administrators from Kindergarten through 12th grade, and very few of them portrayed the value system I have now. There may have been a small handful of them who were concerned about me personally for the brief period when I was under their authority, but the system in general defeated any efforts on their part to connect with me. My kids had more than 15 different teachers in only 6 years at church-sponsored preschools and public schools, and the values exhibited by most of those teachers were dramatically different from our family’s values.
  • Mommies are excellent teachers, primarily because they are the mommies of their students. Mommies can tell instinctively when their child is bored, tired, hungry, or jealous, and can tell which of those feelings is responsible for him acting out.
  • A child’s home usually has a ready supply of educational equipment, including building blocks, measuring cups, and empty bathroom tissue tubes.
  • Anything else you need to know can be found in the following articles.

Preschool Is Not Brain Surgery
Social Skills—What Should I Teach My Preschooler?
Preschoolers’ Educational School-Time Activities
Teaching with Preschoolers Around… and Under… and on Top… and Beside
The Importance of Play in Education
The Value of Supplemental Activities
“Stealth Learning” Through Free Play
Don’t overlook this one—even though it says Kindergarten, it is equally applicable to Preschool…
Time for Kindergarten Round-Up?
And finally…
The Myth of Age-Mates

Workshop Wednesday: Texture Dominoes

Textures are a wonderful way to get a touchy-feely child interested in learning. Preschoolers are especially interested in textures, so here’s a little tutorial on making a set of tactile dominoes that emphasize various textures.

This set of dominoes used 7 different textures, mostly because that’s what I had on hand. You can make your set as large or as small as you like. I had 5 different textured papers that I’d purchased a while back from the scrapbooking section of Hobby Lobby, and I added a sheet of ordinary sandpaper (from Dollar Tree) and a sheet of craft foam to complete the set. Long-time readers will know that I love upcycling the cardboard from cereal boxes and similar packaging, and this is one more example of that. The backing of each domino is made from cereal boxes, brownie mix boxes, cracker boxes, and whatever else I had available.

Step 1: Cutting

My dominoes are 2×4”, and each textured square measures 2×2”. For this complete set of 28 dominoes, I cut 28 2×4” rectangles from an assortment of cardboard boxes and 8 2×2” squares from each of the 7 textured sheets (it takes 8 because the double uses 2 of the same texture). I used a paper cutter to make quick work of the cardboard, but only because I treated myself to one a few years ago. I have made dozens of previous projects using a ruler and scissors. Remember that this project is intended as a learning toy for your kids and doesn’t have to meet the accuracy standards of NASA. Besides that, the dog might just try to eat a couple of pieces, so you don’t want to have wasted too much of your limited time on precisely measured doggie treats.

Would you like a few details on the textures I used? White is a sheet of craft foam with a smooth texture. Black is a finely corrugated paper, sort of like the inside layer of corrugated cardboard (only smaller). Green has tiny wrinkles running in rows across the paper (I glued these together so that the lines on the black squares went in the opposite direction from the wrinkle lines on the green squares). Blue has silver stars and dots that almost feel like molten metal that was poured onto the surface of the paper. Yellow has an embossed floral design. Red is a glitter paper with a very fine texture. Tan is a fine-grit sandpaper with a little more roughness than the red glitter paper. Check out the scrapbooking supply stores in your area or talk to a friend who does scrapbooking to find some great materials. The selections vary seasonally, and something I mentioned may no longer be available. Since these papers are glued onto cardboard, the durability of the paper itself isn’t important.

Step 2: Gluing

I prefer ultra-super-thick craft glue that doesn’t readily squirt or drip, and I smeared it onto the cardboard with the side of a toothpick, being careful to coat near the edges and down the middle where the paper squares would meet. Then I lined up the two texture squares, one on each end, and pressed down to be sure they were stuck without bubbles or gaps. (This is when you find out if you’ve used too much glue and get to wipe off the excess from the edges.) Repeat for each domino. It can help to stack the pieces in order before you start gluing, just so you don’t end up with any duplicated combinations.

If you haven’t wasted spent countless hours of your life playing with dominoes and lining them up in patterns (as I have), this photo can help you see how to do it. I’ve used numbered dominoes (1-7) to represent the 7 textures. The top row is “texture 1” with the double-1 first, then 1-2, 1-3, 1-4, and so on to 1-7. The second row begins with the double-2 and continues through 2-7. Each subsequent row starts with its double, until row 7 contains only the double-7. Once the textured dominoes are ready for play, they can be arranged in any order. Since they don’t have numbers, any texture can be assigned the #1 position, and the remaining textures can follow in any order as positions 2 through 7. As long as the order of the first row is followed, the same type of pattern can be produced. The textures I used also just happened to be 7 different colors (making them easy to distinguish here), but a similar set could be made with 7 colors of all the same texture or 7 textures of all the same color… or any combination in any quantity that suits your children’s needs and your own creativity.

With many cereal-box projects, such as homemade flashcards, I ignore the color-printed side and write on the plain, non-printed side. For this project, I put the glue on the plain side, leaving the colored side visible on the back of each domino as sort of a bonus puzzle. The child who wants an extra challenge can sort the backsides of these dominoes by which ones came from crackers, cereal, and brownie mix boxes. Plus, I didn’t have to worry about any printing showing through a rather thin square of paper.

Step 3: Drying

As I glued the dominoes together, they began to curl — a natural effect of getting the cardboard wet, even from my not-so-runny glue. I spread the dominoes out on the table as I finished each one and held them down with cans from my pantry until they were dry. Larger cans could hold down 2 dominoes at once, which was good because my supply of heavy cans was limited!

Step 4: Playing

This set of texture dominoes is made with a double for each texture, so it will work to play a regular game of dominoes. However, I highly recommend just handing them over to the child who has been so eager to get his hands on them all the time he’s been watching or helping you make them. He probably won’t need any instructions — he will instinctively begin matching up all the pieces bearing one specific color or texture. When he’s completed that step, he will re-sort them for another color/texture. As you can see, this step could go on for quite a while, so this would be a good time for you to sneak away to shuffle the laundry or grab another cup of coffee.

This free-play session falls into what I call “stealth learning,” and your little student will be learning very important lessons. Listen closely as he tells you all the wonderful things he has learned about textures and colors and matching. He may enjoy just rubbing his fingers across the various textures over and over again, and that’s another stealth lesson. He might use each double-domino as a catalyst for finding other items in the house that are in the same color family: more stealth lessons. He might line the dominoes up end-to-end to see if they can stretch all the way across the room, or build a house shape or letter-shapes with them, or even try to build a “house of cards” with the dominoes. Even if he isn’t ready for the proper rules of the dominoes game, your child will learn plenty from color-matching, texture rubbing, and imaginative play. Playing is learning, so let learning be play.

For more ideas:

“Stealth Learning” Through Free Play

Preschoolers’ Educational School-Time Activities


Tactile Learners

Workshop Wednesday: Handwriting — Beginning Techniques

Most children struggle with learning handwriting, and yours may currently be having trouble with it. Handwriting is a difficult task, especially in the very beginning. There are all those different letter shapes to remember, and trying to draw them with any consistency at all is tough. Children often wonder how adults write so effortlessly, because they don’t realize that those adults have had years of practice. Beginners can struggle just to hold on to the pencil or to draw the letters—doing both at once is a Herculean effort!

To begin with, young children who are just learning the skill of handwriting may not yet fully understand the need for letters and words to be written in a left-to-right orientation. They aren’t at the full reading stage yet, so (in their view of the world) they don’t yet see the need or importance of a left-to-right progression. Therefore, right-handed students are prone to begin writing on the right side of the paper, a more natural orientation to their pre-reading way of thinking. “Stealth learning” can help here. When reading favorite storybooks aloud to your child, place your finger underneath each word and move your finger smoothly across the page to reinforce the left-to-right movement, even if the child is not yet ready to read the words. Seeing the progression of your finger will help to build that left-to-right idea. You can hold her hand, too, and move her finger from letter to letter and word to word, again casually demonstrating the left-to-right progression as you read each word aloud. As your child learns to recognize individual letters, you can add “Find the letter B on this page” to your visual and comprehension activities.

Remember that reading and handwriting are two separate skills. Reading is much easier, since it’s all in the mind and doesn’t require any new muscle training. “Handwriting” and “composition writing” are also two separate skills: handwriting is the mechanical action of reproducing individual letters and connecting them into words; composition means thinking up the words, sentences, and paragraphs to form a story or essay. This stage is much too early for multitasking, so encourage your student to learn to read words without having to copy them perfectly, and encourage him to learn to copy sentences without having to think up his own sentences. Focusing on each of these skills separately will prevent over-emphasizing handwriting during any composition activities, a distraction that can stifle the creative process that you would much rather inspire.

There’s an important difference between everyday handwriting and special occasion handwriting—I love this analogy. We all have good clothes, and we have play-in-the-mud clothes. We have inside voices and outside voices, and we have indoor toys and outdoor toys. We have our very best handwriting that we use on Grandma’s birthday card, and we have everyday handwriting that we use for the grocery list—just take a peek at Mom’s grocery list! Allow your child to use “everyday” handwriting on daily worksheets that don’t matter as much, and then specify when his “best” handwriting is required, to take the emphasis off of perfection. Discuss with your child how he outgrows clothes quickly and how you can show him that he will outgrow his current handwriting, too. Saving a few copies of both his everyday and his best handwriting will show him that his handwriting is improving over time.

Helpful Tips and Techniques:

  • Start to teach handwriting with all upper-case letters to reduce the likelihood of letter reversals, since there are no b-d-p-q similarities within the upper-case letters. Once the child is confident in all the letters, the lower-case letters can be introduced as the “little brothers” of the capital letters. By that stage, your child will understand which letter is which and be able to discern which sound is needed.
  • When you want your child to copy a word onto paper, try showing her one letter at a time. For example, to write “DADDY,” you write the first letter, D, on the left side of a paper, and have her copy it exactly (both of you should have identical papers at first, to make it even more clear that she is to mimic every action of yours). Then you write the A next to the D, and have her copy it onto her paper. Continue one letter at a time, Mommy writes it first, then child copies. Letter by letter, copying each action individually, your child will learn to reproduce words correctly on the page.
  • Letter cut-outs are an excellent teaching tool for tactile learners. The shape speaks to fingers and transfers the message to the brain in a way that goes far beyond the simple visual connection. Textured cut-outs are even better: sandpaper, textured scrapbooking papers, corduroy or other textured fabrics, foam or chipboard letters, wooden cut-outs, and more can either be made at home or found at craft stores. Some harsh textures may produce a negative reaction, so experiment to find what your student really likes. No matter what texture your student prefers, feeling the outline shape of the letter makes a deeper mental impression than just looking at a letter printed on a flat surface.

  • Students who have hit a roadblock with letter recognition will benefit from using materials other than pencil and paper. Try some of these options for drawing or shaping letters: finger-writing in dry cornmeal, sand, or shaving cream smeared on a window, patio door, or cookie sheet; Wikki Stix; pipe cleaners (chenille sticks); Pla-Doh or modeling clay; Lego bricks; pennies lined up on the table; or lying on the floor and bending their arms and legs into letter shapes (reasonably close, anyway). The important thing to learn is whether a letter uses short sticks or long sticks or half-circles or whole circles and where each of those parts goes. It doesn’t matter as much if they can form the letter perfectly straight or perfectly round or perfectly connected, as long as they know which parts go where. Elegant penmanship is a different skill, and that can be developed later.
  • A great way to practice writing letters (or numbers) is to trace inside the fat letters of newspaper headlines (lots of wiggle room for shaky lines). Letters or words can be computer-printed in a jumbo font (use a light color and/or draft printing mode) for custom worksheets that use the same tracing technique. This is especially good for students who are having difficulty making steady lines or following connect-the-dots methods. Any thickness of writing utensil can be used with this method: pencils, crayons, markers, etc.

  • Encourage students to practice handwriting by copying a favorite storybook into a notebook (the child will already know the story and can focus on handwriting the words letter by letter and leaving spaces between words. No one has to see their work, unless they choose to show it off, and it won’t be graded, but they will learn a great deal about connecting letters into words and words into sentences, in addition to the spelling of the individual sounds that make up the words.
  • Allow rest breaks and hand exercises (like hand massage or squeezing a stress ball) to relieve sore or tired muscles. Imagine learning to play guitar or violin and how quickly your hands would tire—that’s what he’s going through with learning to write. Also let his legs have some exercise before trying to do writing assignments! Restless kids are much more cooperative for seat work when their bodies are worn out from running, jumping, and playing.
  • Pencil grips make pencils much easier for beginning writers to hold. My kids preferred the Stetro grips (see this link), available in educational supply stores or office supply stores. Stetro grips are adaptable for right-handed or left-handed use and teach kids the correct way to hold a pencil, reducing muscle fatigue, plus their jelly-like texture is fun to hold. We also used the foam core from sponge hair-rollers—cheap, easy to slip onto a pencil, and a pleasing texture. Fat pencils, triangle-shaped pencils, and other unique writing implements are also easier for kids to hold than the average pencil, which is awkward for young writers, just because it is so skinny.
  • Mechanical pencils require a lighter touch (or the lead will break) than standard pencils, which can help kids learn to draw the letters without as much fatigue. These helped my kids learn to let the lead do the work, instead of pressing hard and carving into the paper as often happens with a normal pencil.
  • Smooth-flowing writing implements, such as a whiteboard and markers, are another way to make handwriting easier, since heavy pressure isn’t required to make a dark mark. Whiteboard markers can also be used directly on a cookie sheet—just wipe off with a dry tissue to erase and wash the pan well before the next batch of baking. Wet-erase markers write just as smoothly as the dry-erase whiteboard markers, but won’t disappear from an accidental touch (erase these marks with a damp tissue). Found at office supply stores, these are sometimes called “transparency” markers, since they are usually used on overhead projector sheets.
  • Using light-colored gel-pens on dark paper (see craft stores) changes the visual dynamic enough to get the child’s mind off the act of writing and keep him more focused on the subject matter.
  • Try having your student start with writing little bits instead of full sentences—have him fill in a blank in a sentence or write a brief “label” under pictures he’s drawn. He can write longer portions on a whiteboard (effortless surface) and copy a small portion onto paper. Then every other week (or appropriate interval), gradually increase the amount of writing on paper, until it’s no longer such a chore.
  • We had great results from Italic handwriting workbooks. My fifth-grader had learned the standard cursive at public school but didn’t like the way it looked, so she asked if she could learn to improve her handwriting at home. Italic handwriting was simple and beautiful, and to encourage my daughter, I practiced along with my kids and changed my own handwriting, too. My first-grader learned Italic manuscript first and had no difficulty transitioning into Italic cursive.

Handwriting is a skill that takes time to develop and shouldn’t be rushed. As with any other skill, students will get faster as they become more confident in using it. Give them good tools and plenty of opportunities for enjoyable practice, and you should see positive results.

See also:

Start with Reading, Handwriting, & Arithmetic, and Save the Rest for Later

Letter or Number Manipulatives (DIY)

Letter and Number Recognition 

Preschool Is Not Brain Surgery

When Is Reading NOT Reading?


Workshop Wednesday: Tactile Learning Bag

Children benefit from learning through all their senses and through all learning styles. Visual, eyes-only methods leave out so much of what a child uses to learn: the small muscles of fingers and hands, the big muscles of legs and arms, hearing, smelling, tasting, and so on. By removing eyes from the learning process, even for a few moments, we can actually enhance our students’ learning abilities. Tactile (touching) methods provide many more details to the brain than can be taken in through eyes alone, something which is especially vital for those who have trouble learning or remembering things that have only been seen.

Take one drawstring bag, paper sack, wine gift bag, cloth shopping bag, pillow case, clean sock (all stretched out works best), etc. Dump in pattern blocks, foam beads, letter shapes, number shapes, or random objects. Challenge your students to reach into the bag, feel around, and find a certain shape or object. No peeking allowed, just feeling shapes with fingers to find the right one. It’s a good idea to begin with just a few objects in the bag and work up to more. Also, use only one type of items at a time, unless your kids are prepared for a really big challenge!

Tactile learners will do really well with this type of activity — their fingers are already well acquainted with gathering information, and their minds are already used to forming a mental picture from that tactile information. NON-tactile learners will benefit tremendously from these activities and expand their ability to learn from touching, which is why it’s good to start small and let them get accustomed to identifying shapes with just their fingers. Turning this activity into a game will help expand those tactile skills in a very fun way.

When my kids were preschool age, we had a Lauri Fit-a-Space puzzle set. They loved to pop the shapes out of the circular bases (Lauri calls them “faces,” but my kids called them “pizzas”) and put all the loose shapes into a paper sack. Then they would feel around in the sack to find the correct shape to fit into their chosen base. I also made very simple bingo-type cards by tracing around a few shapes on each card and coloring them in with crayons to match the pieces. My preschoolers got shape and color matching practice in a fun, self-testing activity, trying to find just the right square or heart or oval to go on the cards. (I let them search through a pile of pieces on the table for the color matching.)

A child who is having difficulty learning letter shapes or one who reverses letters can benefit from tactile identification activities. Frequently, a child who mixes up the visual appearance of certain letters is more of a tactile learner, so giving them touchy-feely activities with those letters will help their brains sort out the information and clear up their confusion. For example, let’s use 3-dimensional letters, such as the magnetic letters that live on refrigerator doors and put a single letter into a paper sack (not letting the child see which letter it is), and let the child reach inside and feel the letter’s shape with one or both hands (use a pillow case for ease of getting both hands inside). Now let’s ask this child to find the matching letter on an alphabet chart. I recommend using upper case letters only at this point — fewer opportunities for reversals, and much less confusion over shapes. Consider tracing around each letter to make your own alphabet chart, especially if another chart would vary slightly in the shapes of the letters you have. (Differences to look for: some R’s have an angled “leg,” and others have a straighter leg; some M’s have vertical legs, and others have angled legs; some M’s have an inner “V” that extends to the base line, others have a shorter “v” that only comes down halfway.) Let the child lay the letter shape on top of its matching letter on the chart, and then you can drop another mystery letter into the sack — lather, rinse, repeat. Advanced students can start with all the letters in the sack at once and pull out each one as it is identified. Very advanced students can search through the entire contents of the sack with their fingers to see if they can find specific letters as needed.

When your student has mastered upper case letter shapes, he will probably be ready to tackle lower case letters, even with their look-alike b’s, d’s, p’s, and q’s (not to mention the n’s and u’s that can also feel alike). This activity can be varied again by using number shapes, giving your student the opportunity to notice that 6’s and 9’s can often look and feel very much alike. Ditto for 2’s and 5’s, and sometimes 1’s and 7’s.

Whether the bag contains letters, numbers, geometric pattern blocks, geometric-shaped beads, or random objects, students of all ages can test their own tactile skills by feeling a piece, making a guess at what it is, and then pulling it out of the bag to check. Students with highly developed tactile skills may want to try identifying the letters carved into Scrabble tiles or the number of dots impressed into dominoes, but those activities will be much too difficult for the beginner!

A sack or bag can also add convenience to any games that use tiles or similar pieces. For years, we have kept a paper sack in our Scrabble game, to use instead of a “draw pile.” It takes up much less room on the table, passes easily around to each player, and flattens out fairly well to go back in the box for storage, even with the tiles still inside it. We have a designated cloth bag for our dominoes draw pile, and our Qwirkle game came with its own drawstring bag to draw from — game makers are catching on!

It should be our goal as parents and educators to teach our children how to learn in every possible situation, using every skill they possess. By starting with these simple tactile activities, we can improve skills they already have, provide them with new skills, and open up new realms of knowledge to feed their curiosity. And they may also be able to find their keys in the dark someday.

See also:

Tactile Learners

Math Awareness: Tactile  Counting

Workshop Wednesday: Freebie Magnets

Magnets are a wonderful learning tool for tactile learners. There is something about that magical, magnetic connection that appeals to fingers of all ages. Fortunately, most of us have a ready supply of free advertising magnets from the pizza place, the hairdresser, the auto mechanic, the new phone directory, and every politician who marches in a summer parade. Peel your collection off the refrigerator, and let’s turn them into some great learning aids. I’ll list several possible uses and some basic how-to’s for the magnets. You’ll want to analyze what topic your students are struggling with or where they need the most help, and then focus your efforts there. Students can also help make magnetic learning aids, and helping to make them means the learning begins right away.

Stickers are probably the easiest things to turn into magnets, since you just have to stick them onto a magnet and cut around the stickers with scissors or a razor knife (such as an X-Acto). I have used scrapbooking stickers that looked like Scrabble letter tiles, foam letter stickers that were shaped like small jigsaw puzzle pieces, and 3-dimensional plastic stickers with raised animal shapes. The puzzle piece stickers were slightly tricky because of their irregular shapes, but I cut the magnets into squares small enough to fit in the center of each sticker, and then (after attaching the magnets) dusted the surrounding sticky edges with baby powder, using a dry artist’s paintbrush. It took two rounds of dusting powder to get the foam pieces to stop sticking to each other, but I’ve had no problems with them since then. With regularly shaped stickers, it is fairly simple to line them up next to each other (as many as will fit on the magnet), press them down securely, and then cut them apart. If your stickers have rounded corners, cut them apart as squares first, then round off each corner with scissors. There may be a strip of magnet left at the side that is too narrow to hold more stickers, but hang onto that piece—you’ll cut it up and use it later.

Once upon a time, my kids had some puffy stickers that they wanted to be able to save and reuse. Magnets to the rescue! I covered the backs of the stickers with adhesive plastic, then attached a magnet to each one. Those cartoon character magnets became a great quiet toy for imaginative play.

Craft foam sheets allow you to make your choice of subject matter by writing on the foam with a permanent marker, such as a Sharpie. (Some foam sheets can even be purchased with a magnetic backing already attached!) I had some magnetic strips that were adhesive on one side (leftovers from a weather-stripping project), so I cut squares of craft foam the same width as the magnetic strip, stuck them on, and cut the magnetic strip between the squares. Adding numbers to each square produced magnetic manipulatives for math! I drew arithmetic operation symbols on a few more squares to complete the set.

Laminated placemats have been featured in a previous Workshop Wednesday article, but I will mention them again here for good measure. That example showed a periodic table of elements placemat that I turned into magnets, but any subject matter will do. If a placemat doesn’t lend itself to a building block format (such as the periodic table) or a map (USA, etc.), perhaps you can cut it into a simple jigsaw-style puzzle to entice your kids to play with the magnetic pieces and learn the information.

I have also used the plain (back) side of a thick foam-like vinyl placemat by cutting it into the desired shapes and attaching a small piece of leftover magnet to the back of each piece (formerly the front of the placemat). Adhesive squares made for scrapbooking, card making, and other popular paper crafts work great for attaching magnets (without the mess and hazards of hot glue guns). These vinyl-foam placemats are a bit heavier than craft foam and are made of a material that is not subject to the static electricity that can leave you covered in bits of craft foam for the rest of the day. Yes, that is a magnetic map of Iowa’s 99 counties, made from the backside of an orange jack-o-lantern placemat, but please don’t feel you have to try something quite so ambitious as your first project (that thing was tricky!).

A USA jigsaw puzzle (cut on state borders) received new life as a magnetic puzzle with the addition of a magnet square to the back of each puzzle piece.

Letter game tiles were repurposed with the addition of a magnet on the back of each tile.

Sandpaper cut into small squares can be glued to cardstock for added strength and then attached to a magnet. Grab your Sharpie marker again and write or draw letters, numbers, symbols, etc. for magnetic manipulatives with a bonus tactile texture. I made some in 1” squares, but don’t let that limit your imagination!

Funny facial features (eyes, eyebrows, noses, mouths, mustaches, ears, etc.) drawn on cardstock and attached to magnets become a fun game for preschoolers (I saw that idea on Pinterest, but I don’t know who originated it; someone deserves the credit!). Now what if you used the same principle for body parts and made interchangeable heads, bodies, legs, feet, arms, and tails for a magnetic build-a-monster activity? Build-a-bug, build-a-robot, build-a-car, build-an-animal, build-an-alien—the possibilities are endless! Your older students may have fun creating these magnets for their younger siblings, and they’ll learn some great problem-solving skills in the process. I wonder if we can make these small enough to fit in this empty Altoids tin? Hmmm… then Mom could keep it in her purse for Timmy to play with in church or while waiting in a restaurant!

So let’s review: we’ve discussed making magnets for letters to use for phonics and spelling practice, numbers and operation symbols for math, chemical elements for science, and states for geography. Need more ideas? How about geometric shapes, colors, incrementally-scaled pieces for number value (make them match the size of other math blocks you may own), fraction pieces, or pattern blocks. Have a struggling reader? Use the “magnetic poetry” type of word magnets (purchased or home-made) to focus on reading one word at a time, then adding them together to build a sentence. Have a struggling writer? Those same magnetic words can help him write sentences, stories, or poetry, since it can be much easier to rearrange someone else’s words than it is to think up new words from your own head. Pick up a small, inexpensive, cardboard skeleton party decoration, cut it apart into individual bones or groups of bones (such as the rib cage, hands, feet, etc.), attach some magnets, and you have an anatomy learning aid. Plastic or cardboard coins can become magnetic money manipulatives (say that three times really quickly).

When you have accumulated a large supply of educational magnets, the traffic in front of your refrigerator may get overly congested. Solution: steel cookie sheets or steel pizza pans are lap-sized and much more portable than the refrigerator door. If you need to shop for steel pans, you may want to take along a small magnet in your pocket for testing purposes. (That nosy store clerk will leave you alone when you explain that you’re obviously shopping in the kitchen section for educational materials.)

Now before I forget, there is one other accessory that makes magnetic learning aids even more beneficial: paper. I drew a Sudoku grid large enough to hold our number magnets and placed it on the cookie sheet, using the magnets to hold it in place. Ta-da, magnetic Sudoku can take the visual puzzles from a book or newspaper and turn them into a tactile masterpiece. A worksheet with fill-in-the-blank problems could hold magnets on those blanks instead of written answers. Your kids might choose to color an underwater background picture to place behind their letter magnets, just because they are learning to spell the names of ocean creatures.

Learning isn’t limited to books, life doesn’t happen between the pages of a workbook, and we learn what we enjoy. Magnets get fingers involved, and fingers love to learn! So what are you waiting for???

See also:
What Is the Missing Element?
Placemats + Magnets = Educational FUN!

Workshop Wednesday: Clothespins

Clothespins? Yes, ordinary spring-type clothespins can be turned into some pretty snazzy manipulatives and still be pressed into laundry duty as needed. I used a Sharpie permanent marker to write on the “business end” of each clothespin. See the entire alphabet? (click on photos to enlarge)

I made my clothespins with upper case letters. Your students can practice matching them up with their lower case “little brothers” on flashcards, even homemade ones like this piece of cereal box cardboard.

Did you notice that the first pic had the clothespins facing one way and the next pic had the clothespins facing the other way? Good for you—you’re very observant! I wrote the letters on both sides of the clothespins, carefully facing them in opposite directions, so that the pins could be used either up or down. Here’s one pin I took apart, so you can see both sides at once.

I repeated this trick with numbers and arithmetic operation symbols. These are clipped onto a wire hanger to spark your imagination with more ideas for use!

And here’s a quick math problem with clothespins:

You can make multiple sets of letters and numbers with these low-cost, multi-purpose manipulatives. Let your early learners sort the letters in alphabetical order or clip the clothespin letters onto matching flashcards, letter tiles, or the title words on their favorite storybooks. Use the pins for phonics practice, challenge your students to form their spelling words, or leave silly messages on the clothesline. Bring a different tactile dimension to math lessons by letting the littles sort the numbers in order, combine pins for multiple-digit numbers, or include the operation symbols for writing out math problems. Best of all, these manipulatives can do double duty on laundry day, and your students will get plenty of stealth learning practice when they sort the pins out again for lessons!

For more fun, combine these with:
ABC Flashcards
What Is the Missing Element?
Letter & Number Recognition