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Pre-K Passions

little girl as a painter

Like most preschoolers, your 4- or 5-year-old is probably a ball of energy, bursting to try different things. But although kids this age are eager for new experiences, they need your help to find their true talents. "It's your job as a parent to introduce your child to all types of activities, and this is the perfect age to do it," says Pete Stavinoha, PhD, a child psychologist at Children's Medical Center Dallas. Exposing your kid to sports, science, or the arts will expand her world and help her develop a sense of self. And on top of having fun, preschoolers learn a lot -- and may even discover a lifelong passion.

Keep in mind the goal isn't to turn your child into the next Claude Monet or Mia Hamm: 4- and 5-year-olds are just beginning to figure out which activities they like and dislike, and putting pressure on them to perform may turn them off entirely. The trick is to be supportive without being pushy -- and to provide plenty of opportunities for them to discover and learn. Check out these smart ways to expose your child to sports, science, and the arts.

Introducing your child to T-ball, soccer, or other sports can teach him about teamwork, fitness, and self-confidence -- valuable lessons on (and off) the field. Plus, studies show that kids who play sports have more self-discipline and tend to do better in school.

What you can do: Something as simple as playing catch in the backyard, shooting hoops, or kicking a ball around with your child will show him the basics, boost hand-eye coordination and other motor skills, and help him figure out which sport he likes more. At this age, your kid doesn't have to be athletically gifted or even inclined: It's more about having fun, staying active, and making new friends. Kids with an older brother or sister playing a sport often want to follow in their sibling's footsteps. But if your preschooler doesn't have a preference, expose him to your favorite first.

If your child shows a lot of interest, consider signing him up for a noncompetitive team that focuses on fun, teamwork, and skill building -- and not on who wins. T-ball and soccer clubs are especially good at creating a friendly environment for preschoolers to play and learn. Or you can start a neighborhood league that meets after school, suggests Brooke de Lenche, author of Home Team Advantage: The Critical Role of Mothers in Youth Sports. "Kids will get plenty of social interaction and physical activity without becoming overscheduled or burned out at an early age."

Everything from piano lessons to art time in your own living room can stimulate your child's imagination and give her a creative outlet. The arts can also boost self-esteem and social skills by helping kids, especially introverted ones, connect with other children who share similar interests, like drawing or dancing.

What you can do: Designate a space in your home for art supplies, such as crayons and paper, or a box of musical instruments (tambourines, whistles, maracas), suggests Margery Franklin, PhD, professor emerita of psychology at Sarah Lawrence College, in Bronxville, New York. "When these tools are readily available, kids are free to be creative whenever -- and however -- they choose," she says. It's also a good idea to organize fun activities. Try making your own book: Have your child tell you a story while you write it down, then encourage her to draw pictures to go with it. Another fun project is to stage a "play" or "concert" in your house and record it to watch later as a family.

Since creative kids are often shy or independent, it's important to get them involved in activities outside the house: Many local museums, theaters, libraries, and youth service organizations (YMCA and Boys & Girls Clubs) offer affordable pre-K programs with storytime, crafts, and even cooking events.

Preschoolers are naturally curious about the world around them, which makes this an ideal time to spark their interest in science. Bonus: Your child will gain problem-solving skills that will help him later academically.

What you can do: Kid-friendly aquariums, museums, science centers, and zoos feature interactive stations where kids can experience science firsthand. If your child loves the ocean, he can feel starfish at an aquarium's touch tanks; if he's into dinosaurs, he can view fossils at a museum. "Hands-on activities that encourage touching, hearing, and tasting help kids better absorb the information they're learning," says Linda Huether-Plevyak, PhD, associate professor of early-childhood education at the University of Cincinnati.

But you don't have to go on a field trip to get your child psyched about science. You can observe insects with a magnifying glass, smell different plants, or look at constellations -- all from your own backyard. Be sure to keep it interactive: Go online to classify the bug he found, or ask questions like, "Which of these pots is big enough for the plant?" to spark critical thinking. And before long, your preschooler will discover which activities he likes the best.

There are lots of programs for kids this age. But it's important to find one that isn't too demanding. Follow these steps.

  • Look for a friendly atmosphere. Check into noncompetitive programs that don't require previous experience.
  • Make sure it's age-appropriate. Classes or practice shouldn't be longer than an hour for preschoolers, including break time. And all the kids should get equal treatment, whether it's the amount of time playing in a game or the number of turns helping with an experiment.
  • Get to know the teacher or coach. The instructor should welcome questions and suggestions. Steer clear of people who are pushy, consumed with winning, or hard on the kids.
  • Attend a practice or class. Don't invest in a program until you check it out first. This way you have the option to bail out if it's not what you have in mind for your child.

Sometimes, it's the parents who need a lesson in good sportsmanship. Here's how you should -- and shouldn't -- act around your child.

DO praise the effort, not the outcome. Congratulate your child (and the other kids involved) on finishing their crafts or giving the game their all.

DON'T ask your kid if he won the game or created the prettiest drawing. Instead, say: "Did you have fun today?" or "What did you learn today?" Making it into a competition could add pressure and sour him on the activity.

DO let your child quit. While it's true kids need to learn how to follow through, you shouldn't force your preschooler to keep doing something that makes him unhappy. If he's in tears before every soccer match, consider pulling him out.

DON'T get too wrapped up in it. If you find yourself criticizing your child's performance, remove yourself for a day or two and let your spouse take over.


Copyright © 2008. Used with permission from the January 2008 issue of Parents magazine.