Part One focused on the problems that can arise from over-stimulating your child’s environment in an effort to maximize brain development during their early years.
The desire to increase your child’s intelligence is understandable. But it must be done so with proper understanding of what scientists are telling us about the early brain, rather than what marketers are selling us.
BRINGING THE SCIENCE HOME
For Part Two, I want to discuss the proactive but reasonable ways you can implement activities and enrich the environment for your child.
As you practice these things at home and seek out other activities to try, remember this: your child is not a machine. You are well-read and know they are not the empty vessels we once believed them to be. But neither are they computers that can be programmed with easy-to-use downloadable software.
Instead, children are organic creatures that require a rounded experience, not simply an intellectual one. They grow best from full experiences, which include emotional support such as love and encouragement as well as novel, pleasurable, and exciting experiences in combination with intellectual stimulation.
IDEAS TO TRY ON YOUR OWN
Here are some guidelines and tips for things you can try on your own with toddlers and infants:
- Children need to be allowed to explore and manipulate. If they cannot yet walk, place toys just out of their reach so they learn to stretch and move to reach them. If they can walk, place items on shelves (rather than in big, messy bins) that they must remove themselves (and put back when they are done!). Give them toys they can stack, take apart, and manipulate in a hands-on way.
- Children need to be allowed to take the lead. Follow your child’s interests rather than try to push them in any particular direction. Let them determine the action as often as possible. Your job is to facilitate, not dominate.
- Children need to be encouraged. A loving and kind word goes a long, long way. As you encourage, please try to avoid blanket “you’re so smart/great/amazing” statements but instead do your best to make your praise specific. Especially focus on times when they must work extra hard to accomplish something. Tell them how proud you are of them for not giving up when it was hard. This will help build up their confidence for taking on new challenges and “getting back on the horse.”
- Children need to feel safe. Yes, children like to explore. But they only do so when they feel their environment is safe. Your presence does go a long way, but take time to childproof the house, too, and offer regularity and predictability. It might be boring to you, but remember it’s not about you and this is what children need.
- Children need to be engaged and interested. Not every activity will be a home run. But with some creativity and encouragement, you can make even the ordinary task come to life. Plus, as you let them take the lead, you will find the have great ideas for putting a fun spin on less exciting activities!
- Children sometimes need a nudge in the right direction. Sometimes it will take a little time to get them interested. Try and model it once or twice yourself and show them how fun it is. Then step back and let them take over. If it never works, let it go. No two people are identical, so it’s ridiculous to think one child will love every single activity.
- Children need repetition. You might not want to play peek-a-boo again, but guess what? They would love to play again! Repetition helps reinforce brain circuitry and builds confidence, and interactive games like peek-a-boo and patty-cake are a great way to connect before they are capable of conversation and even help build language skills.
- Children need conversation. Talk to your child. Point out what you are doing. Sit still and watch together out the window, naming and discussing what you see. Do this even before they can talk. Once they can, have them point things out to you. And add variety to your vocabulary to help them build theirs – they don’t need ‘baby words’ 24/7.
- Children need for you to listen. Even more important than talking to your children, you need to listen to them. Research shows that as babies begin to babble, a light reaffirming touch or short verbal response give them the encouragement to talk more, which has been shown to increase vocabulary and language skills. It’s not meant to be done all day long, but during those 10 minute bursts when babies start trying to converse. Don’t worry about whether you understand a word they say, either. Just let them know you like hearing them talk! And don’t stop that encouragement when they can talk. Keep listening with open ears whenever they need it!
- Children need order. Children enjoy predictability, structure, and order. Sure, they instantly make a mess. But that’s not their preference. That’s exploration. But order helps make them feel safe and secure enough to attempt their explorations.
- Children need novelty but not in excessive amounts. New toys are appreciated. But you don’t need a new one every day. And you don’t need them all at once. In fact, it’s best to introduce new toys amongst familiar ones.
- Children respond well to color and soft music. Just as children can be messy, they can also be loud. Soft voices and soft music help keep them calm and focused. Music is not only good for the soul but is great brain food, too. And colorful bins and decorations provide interesting visual stimulus.
- Children need downtime and rest. Constant brain stimulation is not what’s best, believe it or not. Instead, children need a healthy mix of stimulation, rest, and ‘normal’ play time. Have fun with them, provide free time for play, give them some ‘brain time,’ and then let them rest.
Dr. Healy recommends parents encourage “a comprehensive foundation rather than training specific skills.” Dr. Ken Robinson agrees, adding that the future may be quite different than the present. Therefore, we need to teach kids how to think rather than teach facts that might not be useful in 30 years.
Remember, children are not passive machines that we add more files to; they are living, breathing creatures that develop in an organic, natural way – and each child has their own internal pace, so please don’t rush them. Let them enjoy life’s wonders while you enjoying watching them grow.