This week’s blog is written by Melinda Bernsdorf. Melinda has been working in the classroom with toddlers and twos for a decade and strongly believes in the magic of a good book. She studied Developmental Psychology and Learning at St. Joseph’s University and was an educator at SEEC from 2014 – 2018. When traveling, she always brings home a children’s book (or two!) to add to her library. For this blog, she drew on her experiences as a toddler teacher to write about books and how they can help children develop physical skills.
Children’s literature is so fantastic with funny stories, catchy rhyme schemes, and interesting information presented in novel ways. Educators and researchers often praise children’s books, citing their importance in supporting vocabulary development, but children’s books can also meet developmental needs of infants and toddlers beyond language acquisition. These other developmental domains, such as motor skills, are often overlooked when talking about the importance of providing literature to young children. Although it may seem counterintuitive, when young children engage with books, they are also engaging their bodies in ways that help them grow physically.
When our toddlers begin the school year, they devote a lot of their resources to the development of their emerging physical skills. It takes a lot of energy and hard work to figure out the complex series of muscle movements needed to walk, climb the stairs, hold a peer’s hand, or interact physically with another toddler. In one of our toddler classes, we used Eric Carle’s From Head to Toe as a platform for our students to work on these physical skills in meaningful and enjoyable ways while also integrating vocabulary and early literacy skills in our lessons. Our class was so inspired by this book, that we decided to create a unit that focused on body movement and used the book as jumping off point.
Toddlers are intrinsically drawn to the repetition of a familiar and beloved book. Their interest in multiple exposures provides opportunities to increase their knowledge and contextual understanding of the new vocabulary. Additionally, these multiple exposures allow children to mirror and repeatedly practice movements depicted in the images of the book. Often these movements link directly to physical skills that toddlers are working on mastering. The book, From Head To Toe, was a great fit for developing physical skills because of its simple, repetitive narrative that drew in our students, and for its playful directives that allowed each child to practice moving their individual body parts like each animal. We decided to create a unit using From Head To Toe that focused on one body part each week. Using the book as a starting off point, we were able to explore how we can use our arms and hands, legs and feet, and head and neck.
First, we set up the room to give our students many opportunities to freely play and explore the book and concepts we were covering. We had copies of the board book on the bookshelf and a bulletin board showing each animal. We moved the climber directly below the bulletin board to both give them access to the board, enticing them to practice physically going up and down the stairs, and to encourage them to extend their hands to touch the pictures.
During circle time, our toddlers held photographs of animals’ feet, legs, knees, and toes, as they were encouraged to bend their own knees, wiggle their own toes, and kick their own feet. They gained mastery over their actions in a controlled manner, while also increasing their ability to sit in one place for an extended period. This helped them to expand their capability to focus on one thing, which is very different kind of physical work for toddlers.
In our classroom, we invited our students to continue using their arms and hands in meaningful ways with art activities and sensory choices that connected to From Head to Toe. They loved waving their arms like a monkey while throwing the paper packing material in the air!
We did not just focus on gross motor movements, but spent time finding, identifying, and moving our facial features. We also practiced the small muscle movements that are involved in communication by smiling, frowning, and using our mouths to form different sounds.
We also brought the book into the museum, stomping our feet alongside an elephant, clapping our hands next to a seal, and bending our necks with a giraffe.
Across these lessons and experiences, the constant was Eric Carle’s book. We referred back to the work, over and over again, not only because our students loved it and asked for it (which they did!), but because we could offer them the chance to work on the difficult physical tasks of developing new motor skills, without asking them to shift their attention and devote resources to a new topic of exploration. By choosing an age-appropriate, well loved book, we were able to extend our students’ focus, offering them meaningful learning opportunities in multiple disciplines while they were engaged and having fun. We allowed them to do the hard, physical work of being a toddler in a way that was exciting, enticing, and very enjoyable.
Interested in learning more about literacy and young children? Check out our upcoming seminar Literacy Development for Toddlers and Twos using Literature, Art & Objects.
Looking for other books that help young children practice their emerging physical skills, check these out:
- We’re Going on a Bear Hunt by Helen Oxenbury and Michael Rosen
- Giraffes Can’t Dance by Giles Andreae and Guy Parker-Rees
- The Snowy Day by Ezra Jack Keats