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Buying guide for best early childhood education materials

Formal schooling starts between ages 5 and 6 in many countries, but that doesn’t mean kids should wait until then to start learning. In fact, the human brain develops the most during the first years of life, one reason why many believe early childhood education is vital. Early childhood education focuses on learning from birth to age 8. It’s during this phase that the human brain grows the fastest and makes more connections than at any other time. Capitalizing on this period can make a significant difference in your child’s future. 

But making the most of the early years doesn’t require a trained educator or plush preschool. In fact, many experts say that involved parents are the ones best equipped to facilitate learning. Parents are the ones who have nurtured, guided, and built positive relationships with their children during the early years. It’s natural for them to facilitate the kind of play that helps children learn best. All they need are some tips and tools. 

BestReviews can help with both. We’ve compiled this buying guide and recommendations with lots of ideas to get you started. 

The majority of your child’s “brain wiring” is complete by age 5.

Key considerations

Children learn best through play, according to many experts. Play helps children explore their environment and learn about the world around them. It allows them to express their creativity while tapping into the logical side of their brain, too. It gives them feedback from others to process. A well-rounded early childhood education should focus on several types of play and development, including the following.

Gross motor skills

Most people have heard that kids need to develop fine motor skills, but gross motor skills are less known and discussed. These skills use the bigger muscles of the arms, legs, and torso to move the whole body. Gross motor skills contribute to a child’s body awareness, reaction time, coordination, and balance. They also support fine motor skills. 

Most younger children are drawn to activities that build gross motor skills. Pedal cars, tricycles, and scooters are all great ways to practice and build your child’s gross motor skills. Simple outdoor activities and playground games also develop these muscles. If you can’t get outdoors, dancing, crawling, fabric tunnels, or obstacle courses can fill the gaps.

Fine motor skills

Kids need to develop fine motor skills by using and strengthening the muscles in their hands and wrists in preparation for writing, measuring, cutting food, independently brushing teeth, and more. While these actions seem simple, they require coordinated brain and muscular responses. Children who don’t build strong fine motor skills often struggle with school and self-care. 

The good news is kids often enjoy the activities and challenges that develop strong fine motor skills. Coloring, drawing, and modeling with clay all help strengthen the small muscles of the hands. Activities like stringing beads, cutting along lines, or picking up and depositing small objects with tongs help hone movement and build hand-eye coordination. These kinds of activities both entertain young children and prepare them for future success. 

Listening skills

Developing good listening skills will serve children through their school years and after. But listening goes beyond physically hearing sounds. It also involves teaching kids about focus, behavior, and care for others.

Reading books with your child is an excellent way to develop their listening skills. Pick books that match their interests, pause during the story to discuss, and ask questions at the end. When your child speaks, listen attentively, face them, make eye contact, and expect them to do the same. Care about what they say, and teach them to care about what others say. Coach them to listen with their whole body, with relatively still hands and feet. 

Games or projects with multistep directions are another way to build listening skills. Gauging listening skills during interesting activities is one way to explore suspected learning challenges or barriers. If you have concerns, follow up with a pediatrician. It’s important to be realistic, too. All young children have a short attention span, especially compared to adults. But patient practice building these skills will pay off later in formal schooling and in relationships. 

Academic skills

Every child develops differently, but most children start recognizing some letters and numbers between their second and third birthdays. They probably won’t be proficient until age 4 or 5, but that doesn’t mean you can’t give them a head start. Materials that emphasize beginning letters, sounds, and rhyming words are developmentally appropriate and can help your child learn to read earlier. Brightly colored beads, shapes, and other objects give young children opportunities to learn to count, sort, and create sequences, all precursors to elementary math.

Materials that encourage scientific exploration or music are also educationally stimulating. Magnets and magnifying glasses can spark a child’s curiosity. Physics toys can teach cause and effect and encourage further exploration. Simple rhythm instruments can be used to hone both gross and fine motor skills. 

Free play

One area where home instruction especially excels is free play. Some formal early childhood education programs provide little downtime because parents are paying for educational services. But open-ended play gives young children opportunities to exercise their creativity, build flexibility, and practice problem solving. 

Free play inherently involves giving kids few instructions. But some toys, tools and props can help get them going. Crawl tunnels, play tents, building blocks, and other open-ended options provide a concrete starting point with almost unlimited potential.

Did you know?
Getting enough sleep is critical to brain development. Ideally, kids age 5 and under should sleep 12 to 14 hours a day, naps included.
STAFF
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Features

Early childhood education materials must appeal to kids and be safe to use, too. Keep the following in mind when you shop.

Age appropriate

Make sure the materials are developmentally appropriate for your child’s age. Kids will tire easily if tools and games are too simple for them or too complex to understand. 

Attention grabbing

Brightly colored objects, tools, and kits are more likely to capture kids’ attention than those made with muted tones, with the exception of toys intended to imitate their parents’ possessions. Learning tools that involve lights, music, and sounds often capture younger children’s attention, unless your child struggles with sensory challenges. 

Safe

Make sure all education materials are safe. Even older kids sometimes chew on objects or hold them near their mouth. Make sure all small objects are made with nontoxic paints and nonhazardous materials and are free of jagged or sharp edges or splinters.

Also, supervise your children when necessary. Prevent strangulation hazards by keeping an eye on young children who are using strings, ropes, scarves, and other materials they can tie.

"A baby’s brain doubles in size during their first year of life. "
STAFF
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Accessories

Investing in your child’s curiosity and creativity can pay off big down the road. Consider adding some of these to your education tool kit and see where their imagination goes!

Crawl tunnel: Melissa and Doug Sunny Patch Giddy Buggy Crawl-Through Tunnel 
Kids need to build their muscles and their imagination. This tunnel gives them opportunities for both. At nearly 5 feet long, it gives plenty of room for your child to move, explore, and pretend. Each end features a cover with a friendly bug face, but they can be removed for claustrophobic kids. 

Indoor play space: Crazy Forts 
Every child craves their own special, secret place. Play tents are fun, but designing your own is even better! This kit lets kids build a structure using the provided rods and balls. Throw a sheet over the top and your kid has a spot that’s truly their own.

Creativity kit: Magna-Tiles
These intriguing, colorful shapes invite kids to create almost anything they can imagine. The edges of each shape are lined with magnets, so they easily snap together, unlike building toys for older kids. This 32-piece set is a great way to introduce your child to these popular toys.

Did you know?
Music activities give your child a double advantage: rhythm helps children build math and spatial skills, while rhyme and wordplay target language development.
STAFF
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Early childhood education materials prices

Materials used in early childhood education vary widely in price. At this young age, you don’t need to break the bank, but it’s important not to cut corners where safety is concerned.

Inexpensive: These early childhood education materials typically cost $5 or less. You’ll find bead-stringing kits, cutting and craft pages, and other fine motor activities in this price range. 

Mid-range: The middle tier of materials ranges from about $10 to $25. In this range, you’ll find resource books and learning kits for science, fine motor, and gross motor activities.

Expensive: The most expensive early childhood education materials cost $30 or more. At this price, you’ll find large sets of letter, number, or sequencing materials, electronic teaching materials, or larger items like tricycles or fort kits.

Tips

  • Chase some bubbles. Chasing bubbles offers a unique twist on gross and fine motor development. Kids use gross motor skills to track, shift, and reach for the bubbles and fine motor skills to pop them. 

  • Read together. Regular reading sessions with your child can help them build positive associations with books and learning. 

  • Watch out for choking hazards. Sets of small objects are great for practicing counting and fine motor skills. Just remember that objects small enough to fit through a toilet paper tube are choking hazards for kids younger than age 3. 

Tapping into your child’s individual interests can make a huge difference in cooperation. This is easier to do at home than in a classroom.

FAQ

Q. When should I start using education materials with my child? 
A. Early childhood education technically spans from birth to age 8, but most materials target age 2 and up. That’s when kids have gained the necessary language skills to interact and are just starting to grasp symbolism in numbers, letters, and more. While it’s never too early to read to your baby or play with them, early childhood education may be most effective starting between ages 2 and 3. 
 

Q. Is it okay to complete early childhood education at home? 
A. Yes! Parents are their children’s first teachers in many regards. You’re already playing with your child, and transitioning to learning-based play is a natural flow. Parents can’t, however, replace the social interaction or social skill opportunities children gain in brick-and-mortar preschools. If you’re schooling at home, make sure your child has regular playdates with other children in your neighborhood and frequent trips to the playground, and look for other groups of home educators. 
 

Q. Are there any downsides to skipping formal preschool? 
A. One major reason for early childhood education is identifying learning challenges early so children don’t fall behind in their formal education. Parent-educators may miss cues that experts would notice, and they don’t have a primary teacher to contact about concerns. If you go this route, it’s important to keep up with milestone pediatric visits, and bring any questions or concerns you have to appointments.

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