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Until recently, I mistakenly believed that my youngest son would have to start Primary 1 this fall. We live in Northern Ireland - with one of the lowest school starting ages in the world, and it was in fact, concern over the damage this causes that led me to start home educating in the first place. Now if my whole reason for teaching at home came from a firm belief that starting school too young is harmful to children (backed up by many scientific studies *) you might wonder why I would start teaching at home at the same age. In short - I try very hard to "teach" as little as possible and still fulfil legal requirements of an " education suited to age and ability". Instead of teaching - I prefer to facilitate learning in a prepared environment in which a young child can explore and learn at their own pace. Above all, I feel learning needs to be fun and this toy perfectly fit my requirements.
This puzzle is made by Mellisa and Doug, a fairly well known brand name in children's toys which I have always associated with high quality toys that usually have some educational value as well. The puzzle is 28 pieces with two pieces fitting together to make an American style 4-4-0 steam engine, and each of the remaining 26 showing an open top freight car, with upper and lower case letters, and a picture to go with each letter. For all but two letters, the picture is of an animal that starts with that letter. they have taken the easy way out with U, using an umbrella rather than going for a more exotic animal like a unicorn fish, a uriel or uakari which most children will be unfamiliar with. For X they have used fox. The illustrations are especially well done, with great attention to detail and beautiful, colourful pictures. We especially liked the train itself, which is very realistic, the green eyed tree frog and the majestic looking moose. The puzzle is printed on very thick and sturdy card and would be extremely difficult to bend or damage.
This was bought for my youngest, who was 3 at the time of purchase. I chose it because it gave me a way to help him learn the alphabet, without ever getting close to "school work". This puzzle is perfect for learning while playing because it is so effortless. I simply spread all the pieces out face up on the floor. Then I ask him to find a piece giving him the letter name and sound, as well as the name of the animal. This means he can not fail or become frustrated, he can always find it by animal if he does not know the letter. He can learn the alphabet while having fun, and spending quality time with Mom.
There is a growing movement in phonics that says we should be teaching children letter sounds rather than letter names. I'm sorry, but I find it all too hard to get my poor little brain around. Instead I use letter name and sounds together, but the beauty of a toy like this is that you can adapt this and use it anyway you like. Some theorists also believe you should only introduce lower case letter at first. Again, I use both and I'm glad this has both upper and lower case letters. I also like that the letters are large and easily noticed, and that the animal name is written beneath, exposing children to text and whole language style learning as well.
In addition to helping develop letter recognition and phonetic skills, this teaches alphabetical order and even maths. I know maths sounds out of place here, but study after study has found that children who play a lot of puzzles when young develop both better spatial skills and better overall maths skills **. As a home educator, I am always struggling to find more ways to keep learning fun, but I feel this is the type of learning at home that every family could enjoy. The best thing about this puzzle is not the educational value - it is the fun. It is a lovely way for us to spend time together. I really do enjoy playing games and interacting with my children. I value their company and I like things that allow us to play happily together. Puzzles are a wonderful way to pass a rainy day, or unwind before bed - and if the children learn as they play - that is just an added benefit.
I would recommend this toy for ages 2 - 5. My oldest at 7 has helped put it together, but there wouldn't be much point in buying it at his age. I do feel parental supervision would be a must for very young children who might chew at the pieces, but I feel this needs parental interaction to reach its full value anyway. A child could build this alone, but they will learn much more with a parent joining in. My youngest son does really enjoy this. He loves trains anyway, but he really likes the fact that this puzzle is very easy for him to build. He can in fact build this completely on his own if I sit near him and just tell him which letters come next. He also seems to enjoy the animal pictures, and showing each family member which animal they are - we always say each person is whatever animal starts with their letter. We can have fun with animal noises too - or making the alligator chase people.
This is very big. It is over 9 feet when finished, and if you have a very small front room, you may not have room to build this. It must be built on the floor as well, which does make it more difficult for me. You certainly will not fit this on the kitchen table.
I paid roughly £9 for this, but I see the price has dropped to £6.84 from Amazon. I really do feel this was worth every penny I pad, so an even better bargain now. In fact for once I'm glad I bought this when I did rather than waiting as we would have lost several months of use. In addition to being a lovely puzzle, I think this would be beautiful glued together and used as mural for a baby's room. I believe there is a number train as well, and even buying a few puzzles wouldn't cost so much more than buying an expensive border for a nursery, especially if you only do one wall. This would be wonderful over a changing table where the child could see the pictures and feel the texture of the puzzle - or over a bed. If my son had a train themed room, I'm sure I would buy another, and I may still buy an extra one to hang up in our study / play room. I already have a border stretching all the way around the room with trains, starting with the first steam trains and moving right up to high speed bullet trains. This would fit nicely above and be handy if a child needed to figure out alphabetical order for anything.
I've added links to a couple of studies rather than make blanket statements with no evidence, but also as I felt some people might find this interesting.
http:// www. excellenceineducation .com/better _late_ than _early .php
http:// www. dailymail.co.uk/ news/ article-2145136/ School- starting -age -raised -to- prevent- long- term-damage -brighter- children. html
http:// www. suepalmer. co.uk /modern_c hildhood _articles _four_ years.php
http://www. aboutkidshealth. ca/En/News/ NewsAndFeatures/ Pages/ Puzzle-play-i mproves-math -skills-in- preschoolers. aspx