As a parent, you play an important role in helping your child develop the essential skills of learning. You are her model and teacher, and you create and choose the environment in which she learns. In her first years, you present her with experiences that enhance her mental tools for learning. Finally, you provide her with resources and materials to expand her knowledge, encourage her imagination, challenge her brain, and prompt her to take her thought processes to the next developmental level.
Parents and Teachers
Learning is often described as the process of an expert or teacher imparting knowledge to a student. However, real and effective learning occurs best through social interaction—an active exchange between individuals. As her parent, you help form your baby’s first relationship. Through exchange and imitation, she learns how to navigate the world. Later, as she develops relationships and interacts with friends, caregivers, and teachers, she learns from them as well.
It may be helpful to think of yourself as your baby’s guide rather than as her teacher. When you follow your baby’s interests to determine her daily activities and encourage her by asking questions, you can help her develop her enthusiasm for learning. In Pathways to Competence, Sarah Landy states, “Effective learning takes place when caregivers build on children’s natural curiosity and interest and their inborn passion for learning and discovery.” While your child is young, learning occurs best through play. Formal curricula or forced programming in the first years of life can disrupt a child’s natural development and hinder more complex learning later on.
Children are self-motivated and self-directed to know and to learn. They need freedom and space to explore and to discover, but they also need structure and support from an adult. Your child needs balance between autonomy to discover on her own and direction and support from you to keep her on track while adapting to her changing needs. You can provide structure by helping her make connections between new situations and familiar ones. You support your baby’s learning by understanding where she is developmentally, meeting her there, and then introducing the experiences she needs to take her to the next developmental level—what Vygotsky called the zone of proximal development.
As your child’s guide, your observation of her developmental stage and interests, your engagement in her work, and your feedback are key to her continued progress. If you enthusiastically share her interest and curiosity, your delight encourages her to continue to explore and to learn more. According to Sousa in How the Brain Learns, “When students get prompt, specific, and corrective feedback on the results of their thinking, they are more likely to continue processing, making corrections and persist until successful completion.” In other words, if you respond to your child’s intellectual development, she will learn more effectively and enthusiastically.
Learning is a reciprocal process; your child is your teacher, as well. As you share learning experiences, her brain processes information in its own unique way. When you see her point of view, you can learn something new, too.
Before [my daughter] Emi was born, while I was living in Japan, I watched a mother change her baby’s diaper one day. As she changed the diaper, I was deeply impressed by her approach. Every move she made considered her baby’s point of view. She used cloth diapers because she said they felt good next to her baby’s skin, and she folded the diaper so that there were no rough spots to rub against her baby’s bottom. She was thinking of how her baby’s bottom felt. Even when using cloth diapers, I had always prioritized quickness, sometimes leaving my baby’s bottom with a rumpled diaper. I have remembered this incident many times in my parenting and also in developing products for my business.
Optimal conditions that support your child’s learning begin with thinking from her point of view. How does she feel internally and externally? What environmental conditions help her learn best? The quality of your child’s learning environment influences her learning experiences. She will likely thrive in surroundings that are orderly, clean, and considerate of her unique needs. Does she learn best with background noise or in peace and quiet? Does she respond best to bright or low-intensity light? Is she happier in a warm temperature or a cool one?
What are your child’s preferences for her body? Does she learn best when sitting, lying down, or moving? Does she do better on an empty or a full stomach? How does she respond to sleep or lack thereof? Does she learn best early in the morning or later in the day? How does she react to stress? What is her current developmental stage? When you pay attention to your baby’s needs and provide her with optimal conditions that meet her needs both inside and out, you help her create a smooth path to take in experiences and to process them.
You can create optimal internal learning conditions by making sure your baby is:
- Healthy—When your child is sick, her attention and energy become focused on bringing her body back into balance, not on learning. Take care that she is well nourished with healthy foods, movement and exercise, fresh air, stimulation through touch, daily hygiene, and care for her wellness.
- Secure—If your baby is anxious or stressed, her energy and thoughts become directed toward getting her needs met rather than exploring the world around her. If she feels secure, she will be comfortable enough to direct her attention outward. Through freedom and exploration, she gains experience that cultivates her self-esteem and self-regulation and prompts her to continue learning as her knowledge base expands.
- Well-rested—Research shows that sleep is a basic component of processing memory—and thus a key foundation for learning. According to Sousa in How The Brain Learns, “Encoding information into long-term memory sites occurs during sleep, during REM (rapid eye movement). During sleep, your baby’s brain reviews and stores experiences of the day into her memory.”
You can create optimal external conditions for learning by making sure your baby’s environment includes the following:
- Calm and positive energy—Distractions and distress interrupt your baby’s learning process. An environment that is messy, filled with tension, or unusually loud will probably affect her learning negatively. In a calm and positive environment, your baby’s mind is free to focus.
- Rhythm and balance—A day filled with routines and a regular tempo helps your child feel secure. An optimal daily rhythm includes a balance and flow of focused time for thinking, outdoor time for movement and fresh air, and quiet time for resting.
- Play space—As your child goes through different developmental stages, her needs change. A comfortable space that is safe, orderly, and suited to her needs encourages her exploration and participation. You can set up a corner of a room with a rug, cushions, a small table and chairs, toy bins, and shelves. She may enjoy space for a workbench, an art area, a kitchen, costumes, or dolls. Here she can store her toys, draw, build, and host imaginary events. You can help her maintain order by setting up shelves and baskets with photographic labels for storing toys and supplies. A roll-out mat can help define her play space.
- Novel experiences—Variety stimulates your child’s brain. Try serving her different vegetables, such as parsnips or brussels sprouts, or check out different books from the library. New experiences keep her brain active.
- Experiences that offer participation—Your child learns best by actively participating and engaging in experiences, rather than passively viewing media. In addition to playing with her, you can involve her with your day-to-day activities, such as cooking, cleaning, shopping, and gardening.
- Unstructured time—Albert Einstein said, “Imagination is more important than knowledge. For knowledge is limited to all we know and understand, while imagination embraces the entire world, and all there ever will be to know and understand.” Babies and toddlers are fascinated and creative when they have free time to explore on their own. When your child has regular unstructured time, she can dream and discover her own imagination.
You can create optimal learning conditions for your child by cultivating your awareness and turning daily activities into learning opportunities—for instance, measuring ingredients for cooking, sorting laundry by color, and counting the stepping-stones to the mailbox. Hugs, humor, and encouragement add warm feelings and fond memories to your child’s everyday learning opportunities.
In addition to your guidance and positive internal and external conditions, your baby needs tools to assist her learning. Some of those tools are internal, and some are external. You can engage your child in activities to help her develop these internal mental tools. In addition, external tools, such as simple toys and other items for play, support, encourage, and enrich your child’s learning and mental development.
In Tools of the Mind, authors Bodrova and Leong write that through his research, Vygotsky concluded that “similar to the way physical tools extend a person’s physical abilities by acting as extensions of the body, mental tools expand mental capabilities by acting as extensions of the mind.” When your baby is born, she uses lower mental functions that are instinctive and reactive. As she matures, she uses her higher mental functions to act deliberately. The ability to act thoughtfully and purposely requires tools of the mind, such as deliberate memory, focus, logic, symbolic thinking, and language. With these tools, your child can read, write, consider the past, plan for the future, strategize, cooperate, and think abstractly and creatively. By honing these tools, she can take information processing and problem solving into new realms.
Your baby’s mental tools are further enhanced and developed through play and enriching activities. As the tools of her mind expand her mental capabilities, the tools of play—toys—expand the effectiveness of her play.
In selecting toys for your child, consider the following:
- Safety—With small children, take care that toys do not present a choking hazard. In general, if a toy can fit through a toilet-paper roll, it is too small for a child under the age of three. Be aware of small buttons, magnets, and breakable items. Remove strings, ribbons, or cords over 12 inches long from a baby’s environment. Avoid screen toys for children under two years old and battery-operated toys for children under eight. Supervise your child when she is playing on a riding toy, and make sure that she is wearing a helmet.
- Natural materials—Toys that are made of natural and nontoxic materials have less risk of containing harmful substances such as lead, PVC, and BPA. When possible, choose toys made of safe plastics, bioplastics, silicone, stainless steel, organic cotton, wool, or wood. Avoid added finishes such as formaldehyde.
- Simplicity and open-endedness—Less is more when it comes to toys. Learning is an active process, and toys that are open-ended and simple in form engage your child’s imagination. Toys that can be used for a variety of purposes include boxes, blocks, building sets, and stacking cups. Toys that inspire imaginary role-playing are push toys, tool belts, kitchen sets, playhouses, and costumes. Screen toys, computer games, and television do not challenge your child’s imagination.
- Familiarity—Boxes that toys come in often interest children more than the toy does. Household items such as funnels, sifters, wooden spoons, metal bowls, pots and pans, water hoses, garden tools, pieces of cloth, cornmeal, homemade play dough, and beans in a snack cup can provide hours of play, fun, and mental stimulation.
- Size- and age-appropriateness—Tools and toys that match your child’s developmental stage and age are easier for her to use. Some examples are gardening tools (shovel, rake, watering can), kitchen tools (bowls, spoons, table, chairs, play stove, play refrigerator), and home tools (hammer, brushes, brooms).
- Versatility for different stages—Some toys grow with your child through many developmental levels. Simple, open-ended toys tend to interest and stimulate your child at different ages. For instance, a two-year-old may be interested in knocking over a pile of blocks, while a four-year-old uses the same blocks to build a tower. At each age, the blocks meet your child at her current developmental level and help her begin working on her next level.
You can teach your child everyday life skills by encouraging her to take care of toys, to keep them neat and orderly, and to clean up after playing. To keep her from getting bored and tired of her toys, you can periodically rotate them. For fun, arrange her toys in order or set a stage or activity to stimulate her play experiences.
The following considerations, activities, and toys help your child learn:
- Sensory—Give her a variety of textures to touch: soft and cuddly, crinkly, firm but not hard, and so on. For visual stimulation, look for harmonious and appealing colors and designs. For auditory stimulation, seek the soft sounds of bells and rattles rather than loud and overstimulating electronic noises. For her sense of smell, choose natural instead of artificial scents. To stimulate taste, look for safe materials that will not repel her when she puts them in her mouth.
- Movement—Create a safe space that has boundaries, and then allow your baby to move freely; do not restrict or limit her natural movements with bouncers, rockers, or walkers. Riding toys, play gyms, and balls inspire active movement; yoga, swimming, running, crawling, dancing, and jumping encourage gross-motor coordination and spatial awareness; drawing, playing musical instruments, origami, puzzles, buttons, zippers, and eating with utensils build fine-motor skills.
- Interaction—Tell stories with plush toys or puppets. Mirrors and photo albums prompt interaction with herself and others. Games and songs encourage social interaction.
- Communication—Talk, read, and sing to your child. Books, art, interactive games, and conversation encourage language development. Speak to her or play music in a second language.
- Cognitive—Give your child problems to solve. Stacking and sorting toys, puzzles, and board games engage your child and stimulate her memory, ability to focus, concept development, logic and reasoning, mathematical ability, and other mental functions.
- Creative—Inspire your child’s imagination. Art supplies (crayons, chalk, markers, paper, glue, and clay), musical instruments, music recordings, dress-up clothes, and costumes give her the opportunity to express her imagination.
- Naturalist—Explore a sense of natural wonder with your child. Sticks, shells, rocks, leaves, grass, pinecones, sand, water, flowers, and garden vegetables are some of nature’s toys that stimulate her senses and imagination.
As a parent, you can nurture your child’s natural development by taking a role as her teacher and guide, creating an environment with optimal learning conditions, providing her with internal and external tools, and encouraging stimulating activities that help her realize her full potential.