Helping Preschoolers Learn Through Animals

Got a tot who’s a jaguar junkie, frog fanatic or lorikeet lover? If your preschooler is all about animals, harness that natural fascination to help your child learn about his or her favorite critters. We chatted with a few Detroit preschool teachers Zelmetta Campbell, Detroit native and preschool teacher at Iris Center Renaissance Head Start; Ashley Kunkel, lead preschool teacher at C.R. Smith Pre-Kindergarten Academy; Terri Satchel and Lisa Knox of the Detroit Thrive by Five Head Start program at Mark Twain School for Scholars. They gave us tips and ideas for some wild at-home learning – pulled right from the classroom. Whether you’re looking for a new creature-themed tale, hands-on experiment or a goofy game to get your bitty biologist engaged, here’s some inspiration.

Interpretive guide. You’re your child’s own personal zoologist. But don’t worry: No training needed. ‘Kids want to explore things with their parents,’ Kunkel says. ‘In the classroom, things can get lost in the shuffle, but if they are doing it one-on-one with their parents, with their undivided attention, kids will get more out of it.’

Animals everywhere. If you hear a woodpecker, Kunkel says, point it out and ask questions. How does it get food? How strong must its bill be? Learn with your child; if you don’t know an answer, look it up together. Got a pet dog, cat or fish? It’s practically a built-in learning opportunity. ‘The more connections they make,’ Kunkel adds, ‘the more curious and excited they get about it.’

Show time. Simple songs and puppets or fingerplays can spark interest – and lend themselves nicely to animals, Satchel and Knox say. Nursery rhymes like ‘Five Little Speckled Frogs’ or ‘Five Little Monkeys’ introduce critters and counting. Use black felt and glue to turn a white sock into a zebra. Remember the fingerplay ‘Here is the church, here is the steeple’? Turn it into ‘Here is the barn, open it wide,’ the Library of Michigan suggests – and meet horses and cows inside.

Field trips. Start with your backyard to spot anything from raccoons to robins. Visit a zoo or nature center for more exotic animals. Or have your tot tag along for a visit to the vet. This July, be sure to visit the Outdoor Adventure Center near the RiverWalk in Detroit, which has fur and bones from Michigan-native animals on display. ‘Kids can see and feel the fur and bones, and talk about what parts of Michigan they can find the animals in,’ Campbell says.

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Sounds and pantomimes. Games like ‘Old MacDonald’ are tried-and-true when it comes to learning different animals – and the sorts of noises they make. ‘We do charades,’ Kunkel adds, ‘where we have to act out the animal, and kids have to know about the animal and how it behaves to get it right.’

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