Learning Chinese Alongside My Toddler

I did not think it would happen so soon — the Dumpling is now learning Chinese words in school that is beyond my elementary knowledge of the language. Frankly my exact reaction when I saw her second semester vocabulary list was “WTF?!”

Semester 1 vocabulary list: 大, 小, 人, 口, 月, 手, 貓, 狗, 魚, 車, 門, 山, 男, 女

Semester 2 vocabulary list: 花朵, 青草, 杯子, 新年, 米飯, 牛奶, 兔子, 樹木, 刷牙, 洗手, 雨天, 跑步, 打球, 游泳, 爸爸, 媽媽

While she is not expected to write at three years old, her current curriculum requires her to recognize characters. Feedback from the school’s initial progress report stated that she “needs more practice”.

I dislike the competitiveness, methods, and intensity of the Hong Kong school education system (her current kindergarten is actually considered lax by local standards), so I am unwilling to deploy any tiger parenting tactics that would add additional pressure. That means I do not intend to enroll her in after-school tutoring or various extra-curricular courses so she can “get ahead.” I believe that learning at her age should be done seamlessly through play; anything extra should be purely based on her interest level. For example, I will only sign the Dumpling up for additional classes because it is an activity she loves to do—not something I want her to learn.

My challenge, therefore, is integrating Mandarin into our daily routine without making the process feel like a “lesson.” Despite living in Hong Kong, English is the primary and dominant language in both our household and expat community, so Mandarin is actually a very foreign sound. In order to do that, however, I first have to learn the words myself. Google Translate has been my BFF, and I have been practicing the activities below alongside the Dumpling (and pretending like I know what I am talking about).


Flash Cards

I made flash cards and taped them on relevant or highly visible places around the house. For example, 花朵 (flower) was taped right next to my vase of flowers and 牛奶 (milk) was taped on the fridge. Sometime we would play a “scavenger hunt” for the words or we just pointed to them as we went about our day. Those few seconds of daily exposure added up — by mid-semester, the Dumpling’s progress report improved to a “well done!”

Images used in puzzle are downloaded from Freepik.
The flashcards were taped next to relevant objects around the house.

Coloring Sheets

I made coloring pages of her vocabulary words in PowerPoint, which can be done with just a few clicks!

Turn any text into outlines in PowerPoint to create coloring sheets.

Instead of using just markers and crayons, below are few ideas to keep the activity fresh by “coloring” with different materials.

  • 花朵, 青草, 樹木: Scavenge for small flowers, grass, and branches to glue onto the characters
  • 米飯: Glue rice (I dyed mine with food coloring)
  • 兔子: Glue cotton balls or white pom poms
  • 刷牙: Paint with toothpaste (preferable a colored one) on with an old toothbrush
  • 洗手: Paint with colored foam soap/shaving cream
  • 雨天: Draw raindrops with white crayon and paint over with blue watercolor (wax resist)

Below are a few other learn-through-play activities I have done with the Dumpling in the past:

Self Correcting Puzzle with Vocabulary Words

The Chinese characters used in the puzzle correlate with the vocabulary words from her Semester 1 vocabulary list.

Some images used in puzzle are downloaded from Freepik.

Chinese and Arabic Number Puzzle (Click here to download)

I created this puzzle to help the Dumpling recognize Chinese numbers and associate them with their Arabic counterparts.

Directions: Glue each printout onto a piece of cardboard. Carefully cut out the Chinese number puzzle pieces with an X-Acto knife. Lay the Chinese numbers sheet on top of the Arabic numbers sheet.

Missing Number: 1 – 10 (Click here to download)

This was another puzzle to help the Dumpling get familiarize with Chinese numbers. When we first started the activity, the Dumpling actually lacked the coordination and strength to pinch the clothing pins open, so clipping them on became an exercise in itself.

Directions: Cut the strips along the solid lines. Label clothes pin with numbers 1-10 in Chinese characters.

Memory Game with Colors (Click here to download)

To play, lay the pieces with their backsides facing up. Flip over two pieces on each turn with the goal of finding two matching colors in as few moves as possible. Again, I do not expect the Dumpling to read just yet; I just say the colors aloud as we play. We initially started with only two colors and have currently built up to six.

Directions: Make two copies of the printable and cut out each color circle.

Indoor Play & Activities: Recap of September 2018

September has brought about a stretch of dry weather in Hong Kong, so the Dumpling and I have been spending most of our afternoons outdoor. For the days that we stayed in, our activities have centered around reviewing the Chinese words that she’s been learning at school, celebrating the Mid-Autumn Moon Festival, and discussing the aftermath of the typhoon that hit our city midway through the month.

Learning Chinese 

Ever since the Dumpling started kindergarten, I wanted to increase her exposure to Mandarin at home to reinforce what she’s learning at school. I tried reading Chinese children’s stories with her, but the words sounded so foreign that she exasperatingly asked, “Mommy, what are you saying?!” When I switched the language of her Netflix shows from English to Chinese, it solicited such a visceral reaction that I quickly reverted everything to its original state.

Eventually I backed off…until one day, out of nowhere, she muttered her first Mandarin words at home. At first it was counting to five, then to ten, and now a few words and broken phrases. She was so proud of herself at times that she wouldn’t shut up! I quickly capitalized on her newfound interest by creating several puzzles to further engage her through play.

Chinese and Arabic Number Puzzle Match

Click here to download.

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I created this puzzle to help the Dumpling recognize Chinese numbers and associate them with their Arabic counterparts.

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Directions: Glue each printout to a piece of cardboard. Carefully cut out the puzzle pieces with an X-Acto knife. Finally (and optionally) cut a semi-circle at the bottom of each piece so that it’s easier to pull off from the puzzle board.

Self-Correcting Chinese Vocabulary Puzzle

(Sorry, folks—because I used stock illustrations* to make this puzzle, I do not have the license to re-distribute this as a printable.)

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The Chinese characters used in the puzzle correlate with the vocabulary words the Dumpling is learning at school. I don’t expect her to read yet, so I just sound out each character as we match the pieces.

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* Some illustrations used in this puzzle were stock illustrations downloaded from Feepik.

Chinese Color Match Memory Game

Click here to download.

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To play, lay the pieces with their backsides facing up. Flip over two pieces on each turn with the goal of finding two matching colors in as few moves as possible. Again, I don’t expect the Dumpling to read just yet; I just say the colors aloud as we play. We initially started playing with only two colors and have currently built up to six.

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Directions: Make two copies of the printable, glue the sheets onto pieces of cardboard, and cut out each color circle.

Celebrating Mid-Autumn Moon Festival

The Dumpling and I experimented with different methods of making lanterns throughout September. Details can be found here.

My Post (9)

Dealing with the Aftermath of Typhoon Mangkhut

Typhoon Mangkut was supposedly the fiercest storm to hit Hong Kong in the last 30 years. For a few hours, our windows and door shook violently and rainwater leaked in non-stop.

The next morning, the Dumpling and I ventured outside to assess the damages. There were lots of downed trees and foliage as expected, but to our surprise there were also shattered seashells outside our flat! We live less than a quarter of a mile away from the beach, but we are also situated on a hill approximately 80 feet above sea level so these seashells were a long way from home. The Dumpling and I managed to find several intact ones which we brought home and painted.

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Our souvenirs from the typhoon.

Turn Your Child’s Artwork Into Colorful Text Prints (Part 1)

I recently created a bunch of alphabet coloring sheets for the Dumpling, and we went on a coloring rampage with all sorts of materials—watercolor, chalk, craft paint, shaving cream, etc. I thought her application and choices in colors were spot on, so I cleaned up a few of her pieces in Photoshop (I helped her “color within the lines”) to create these beautiful alphabet prints!

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I received several inquiries on how the prints were created, and I was bummed out to tell others that they needed Photoshop. To make the project accessible to those who don’t have the program, I made two “electronic stencils” so they could be layered over existing artwork to replicate the same effect in PowerPoint. Since I needed “abstract” pieces for this method, it turned out to be a great way to give a few of the Dumpling’s old paintings a second life!

Alphabet-Stencil-Preview

 

Learn how to create them in PowerPoint by first downloading my “electronic stencils” and then watching my video tutorial below. I’ll demonstrate how the stencils are created from scratch in my next post!

 

Downloads

Alphabet Print Video 14
Electronic Stencil – Lowercase Alphabet

Alphabet Print Video 14
Electronic Stencil – Uppercase Alphabet

Create a Custom Coloring Sheet in PowerPoint

One of my favorite activities to keep my two year old busy is coloring: I strap her into a highchair away from walls and other furniture, layer my dining table with a large plastic bag, and let her go at it.

Instead of buying coloring books, however, I typically make my own because I can tailor the graphics to my toddler’s interest—which lately has been the alphabet.

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Creating a coloring sheet is actually quite easy in PowerPoint. Yes, PowerPoint—a program that typically comes bundled in our Microsoft Office! Check out my video* below for a quick tutorial. Print a bunch for the next rainy day activity or personalize it with someone’s name for your next gift bag stuffer along with a box of crayons!

* It’s my very first video tutorial! Any feedback would be greatly appreciated!

A thought about the typefaces

One of my biggest pet peeves with children’s books, especially those that try to teach the alphabet, is their choice in typeface. Many popular ones use the two-story lowercase “a” and “g” for legibility reasons, but this could be confusing for pre-schoolers who are learning to write the one-story version. While it’s not a big deal with older kids and adults, the Dumpling and I definitely have had disagreements about this. Therefore, I tend to stick with Century Gothic as it has the one-story “a” and “g.” Comic Sans is another one that often comes pre-packaged with Office…laugh all you want, but kids actually like this!

a and g

Free Downloads

Click here to download the alphabet coloring sheets.

Colorful Ice Hearts

The Dumpling recently painted on ice as an activity in one of her playgroups and absolutely loved it. To replicate the activity at home with a Valentine’s Day twist: I set out to make heart shaped ice. I didn’t have ice molds, so I experimented using my trusty cookie cutters instead—seems like I have done everything except bake with them!

Materials

  • Shallow plastic tray that is bendable (I upcycled a plastic food tray)
  • Plastic heart cookie cutter
  • Water

Instructions

Step 1: Pour several millimeters of water into the plastic tray with the cookie cutter inside. Please note that using too much water will make it hard to break off the excess ice later.

Step 2: Freeze on a flat surface.

Step 3: Gently break off the ice along the outside edge of the cookie cutter. The entire sheet of ice should come off the tray easily but be careful not to remove the cookie cutter.

Step 4: Put the cookie cutter back in the tray and add more water to the inside of the mold. It’s okay if some water leaks out. Optional: Add the ice that was broken off from the previous step to create a jagged effect.

Step 5: Freeze on a flat surface.

Step 6: Clean off the ice around the heart and gently wiggle/bend the mold free. If it’s stuck, wait a minute and try again.

Activity Ideas:

Color the Ice

Instead of painting directly on the ice, I also sprinkled salt over it at the start of the activity. Salt lowers the ice’s freezing temperature, so crevices will form where the ice starts melting. When the Dumpling painted food coloring on, the colors ran into the cracks for a beautiful effect.

Once the ice started turning brown, I rinsed it with water for a clean slate again.

Color with Ice

Once the ice soaked up enough food coloring, I asked the Dumpling use it as an “ice crayon” to color with it on paper.

Or just add food coloring before freezing.

The Dumpling’s First School Interview

“Thank you for your enrollment application for our Kindergarten. We would like to invite you and Remy to school to meet with one of our teachers. It will be a good opportunity for parents to have a further understanding of the school and a chance for us to get to know your child.”

The Dumpling got invited for a school interview, but my initial excitement upon receiving this email was quickly replaced by bewilderment—mostly wondering what on earth would they ask a two year old?!

Friends and family have warned me before my relocation to Hong Kong that its education system is extremely competitive, but I shrugged it off. While enrolling her into a decent school is a priority, enrolling her into the best school isn’t. It was never my intention to leave the education, discipline, and upbringing of my child solely in the hands of teachers; being a supportive and involved parent is just as important. This may also be an unpopular opinion in Hong Kong, but I don’t believe that academics is the golden ticket to success…good grades can only get you so far in life.

The primary reason why I want to get her in ASAP is so she can develop social skills with other kids, a lesson that I will never be able to provide.

(And so I can catch a break everyday.)

I received the invitation last Thursday. The meeting was scheduled for this past Monday. Prepping the Dumpling did cross my mind, but I decided against it. I didn’t even bother Googling what these interviews are like… it’s not like we can cram or pull all-nighters together. If there was something she couldn’t learn in the last 26 months of her life, I doubt four days would be a game changer.

On the morning of the big day, I dressed her in a cute pink floral outfit, gave her a cookie (as a bribe to be a good girl), and off we went.

Upon arrival, the school receptionist asked what the Dumpling’s primary language is. When I replied that she understands both Cantonese and English, a Cantonese teacher greeted us and started conversing with my daughter.

We had a lackluster start because the Dumpling wasn’t very responsive. When she did speak, it was in English. The teacher then suggested meeting with the English teacher instead. At that moment, I realized how important answering the language preference question was on the application. Maybe it was because I was there instead of jigg since the Dumpling prefers to speak English with me and Cantonese with her dad.

The English teacher then brought us to an office, a type of room where I imagined a kid would go to when he/she gets in trouble. She had a box of materials such as color pencils, books, toys, stickers, paper, etc. The set up looked serious.

Object Recognition

The teacher first took out an ABCs book and asked the Dumpling to name the fruits, objects, and animals on each page. The Dumpling flew through each one since the pictures were typical ones found in most children’s books.

Color Recognition

Next the teacher gave the Dumpling a piece of paper, took out a set of color pencils, and handed them to the Dumpling one by one. As the Dumpling scribbled, the teacher asked her to name the colors: red, orange, yellow, blue, green, purple, pink, brown, purple, and black.

We had one hiccup; there wasn’t a white pencil so the teacher pointed to the paper and asked what the color of the paper is. The Dumpling misinterpreted and started doodling on the spot that the teacher pointed to. After two more attempts, the teacher moved on. I understood why the Dumpling was confused, but held my tongue since I didn’t want to come off as a helicopter mom.

Number Recognition

For the following exercise, the teacher shuffled a set of flashcards with 1 through 10 and asked the Dumpling to read the numbers. She breezed through them since we just finished number recognition recently.

Shape Recognition

Flashcards of various shapes were presented for identification. The Dumpling got every one: triangle, rectangle, circle, square, diamond, star, heart, and hexagon. Yes, there was a hexagon in the deck. I was patting myself in the back for that one because jigg thought it was a useless shape to teach a toddler. HA, proved him wrong!

Counting

The teacher then took out a basket of chips and asked the Dumpling to count with her. I immediately knew my daughter wouldn’t be able to do this yet; but I nonetheless let the teacher lead. After a few attempts, I stepped in and explained that we were still working on this concept.

Miscellaneous Questions

Various one-off questions were also scattered throughout the interview, such as:

  • Is the elephant big or small?
  • What is your favorite color?
  • How old are you?

In the end, I asked the teacher how the interview will be evaluated. She replied that it’s not really what the child knows but how he/she communicates and interacts. Her answer sounded suspiciously incomplete but I didn’t press. If the assessment were purely subjective, what was the point of all those tests?!! Regardless of the results, I was so proud of my daughter and gave her three cookies on our way home.

I already knew ahead of time that the kindergarten was completely full. The interview was just something to cross off the application process in the event that a spot opened up. In the meantime, I intend to join a parent-accompanied play group that meets three days a week. I really do miss the U.S. where I can just drop the Dumpling off at daycare for 10 hours everyday. If one can be found here, please take my money!

(I finally did Google what the nursery school application process is like in Hong Kong…this shit is insane!)

Teach the Way They Learn

“If a child cannot learn from the way we teach, maybe we should teach the way they learn.” – Ignacio Estrada

Ever since the Dumpling was a newborn, I have dutifully incorporated reading as part of her nightly routine. On regular rotation were classics such as Goodnight Moon, Are You My Mother, The Runway Bunny, and nursery rhymes. Although her “meh” reaction was initially discouraging, online articles by child experts assured me that my efforts were not wasted. They seem to unanimously agree that reading to kids from an early age constitutes quality bonding time, promotes early literacy, develops their imagination, and brings an abundance of other benefits down the road.

As the Dumpling grew older, so did her interest in books…but not in the way I expected. While she was teething, they became her chewing toys. Then she went through a phase where she ripped off all the flaps from her flap books. Now she just loves flipping maniacally through the pages. On some evenings, she wouldn’t even sit through an entire story before wiggling away. I initially thought it was my choice of literature, but her behavior was the same whether we read her “favorite” story or a Toys“R”Us circular.

While the futility of our reading time didn’t escape me, it didn’t bother me either…until I actually tried teaching her something. It started when the Dumpling developed an interest in colors at around 19 months, so I picked out a few books to help her along. While nothing in our routine changed, my perception of it did. Instead of a leisurely past time, reading now had a purpose.

Information Overload

The reality was that the Dumpling’s primary interest laid in flipping, crumpling, or ripping pages; the content was secondary. Delving into my graphic design background, my guess was that there was just too much visually going on to hold her interest. As a result, she looked at everything—and therefore, nothing at once. For a toddler learning a new concept, a spread with seven to eight colors along with pictures, words, and numbers can be overwhelming. Even if an entire page was dedicated to one color, her attention was often fixated on familiar objects but not their attributes. For example, she would focus on the frog rather than the frog being green. This was understandable since her vocabulary up to this point consisted mostly of nouns and verbs; adjectives were new territory.

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Excerpts from the Dumpling’s books: there’s too much going on!

After a few attempts, I shifted away from books to experiment with a few activities designed to channel the Dumpling’s attention. I have always been a hands-on learner, so I built a color lesson around finger painting. I started by hiding all of the paint colors except for one and kept repeating that color over and over again. When the Dumpling started losing interest, I took the first color away and introduced a second. Again, I repeated the new color until I brought out the third and hid the second.

In our first painting session, she was exposed to a total of four colors: yellow, blue, red, and green. Once they were all introduced, I laid them out of reach and asked her to point to what she wanted as I named the chosen one aloud. Towards the end of the 30 minute activity (which as about 25 minutes longer than what I would have gotten out of reading), she was pretty much able to point correctly to a color when asked and verbally name blue and yellow.

In the next few weeks, we replicated this approach by playing with sets of identical objects that came in different colors, such as crayons, balls, pipe cleanerspom poms, and spoons. I was strict with having only one color of each available at the beginning. For example, if we were playing with pit balls, I had one red, one blue, one yellow, and one green out even though the set came with 100 balls. I didn’t want her to be distracted by the other 96 balls bouncing everywhere because our attention was on the colors, not the balls. Once I felt she developed a solid understanding of the initial four colors did I introduce additional ones.

Learn Through Play Activity Ideas

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  • Rolling balls: There’s something very calming about rolling balls down the stairs and watching them bounce. The Dumpling could spend 40 minutes doing this (she would have gone on longer, but I was tired picking them up), so it was an opportune time to talk about colors!

  • Fishing with pipe cleaners: I molded pipe cleaners into fishes, handed the Dumpling a magnet, and asked her to “fish” for different colors. (Tip: Find a magnet strong enough to pick up the pipe cleaner, but not so strong that it picks up multiple ones. Otherwise the game would be over very soon.)
  • Color sorting pom poms: After cleaning out plastic takeout sauce containers, I layered the bottom with colored construction paper and showed the Dumpling how to color sort. We started on easy mode with four colors and slowly added more.

YouTube also became an effective medium after the Dumpling started watching videos of an animated baby sliding into a ball pit. The character would do this repeatedly, except the balls were a different color each time.

Through simple and repetitive activities, the Dumpling learned to identify and say 10 colors before she turned two. As I was dressing her recently, she demanded to wear a blue outfit. When I was about to put a baby blue shirt over her, she stopped me and said “NO! Dark blue.” Apparently she can now differentiate between light and dark hues too.

I still read to my daughter on a regular basis in hopes that she would develop an interest in books one day. However, I also recognize that reading doesn’t always necessary equate to learning. While books are great resources, they’re only as useful as the amount of information a child can extract from of them. Just in case the Dumpling learns more effectively through other methods, I’m always ready to explore new activities as we learn together.