Stimulating Your Toddler’s Brain

Stimulating play

Stimulating play

In an earlier post, the necessity of providing brain stimulus to young children was covered. It was made clear that children, even at a very young age, require stimulus in order to be successful in school and in life. If this stimulus is not provided, the child’s brain will not develop and, some studies even show, will be smaller than the brain of a child who has received a lot of stimulation at a young age. There are many ways to help your child develop optimally. Most parents just naturally speak extensively to their child. This is a very good starting point, since language development in a child depends on parents talking to their baby about what they are doing, how they are feeling, etc. The tone when talking to a child is generally higher – it’s called ‘parentese’. Singing to your child is also strongly recommended. You don’t have to be tuneful, you can even make up little chants and ditties to stimulate her. Singing to your child will enhance your child’s learning of rhythms, rhymes, and language patterns.

Another important way to stimulate your child’s brain which is used by experienced and involved parents everywhere is playing finger games such as ‘patty cake’ or ‘peek-a-boo’. This helps the child relate hand movements to words creating important neural links which relate fine and gross motor activities to words.

Read to your child. I can’t stress this enough: read to your child. You can start very young, showing wordless picture books of common items like farm animals, foods, methods of transportation, etc. Talk to your child while looking at the pictures, name the items, make noises related to the items (i.e. ‘choo – choo’ for trains, or ‘hee-haw’ for donkeys). Talk about the colours, talk about other items in the pictures. Point at items while you talk about them. Once the child is 12 – 18 months old, you can introduce simple stories with a few words and, as they show increasing comprehension, move up to more complex stories. By the time your child is 3 1/2 to 4 years old, you should be able to read entire children’s stories to them like “The Princess and Curdie” by George MacDonald. By reading to your child, you are building his vocabulary, you are increasing brain connections by stimulating their imaginations, their visual association with objects on the paper, their creativity – so many benefits, too numerous to name.

Provide your child with developmentally appropriate toys. A baby will be endlessly fascinated by a mobile, however once she is able to sit up and handle items with her hands, you can give her stacking toys, or wind-up toys. By playing with these toys, she will learn cause-and-effect relationships and “if-then” reasoning. For example, if she puts a larger piece on top of a smaller piece, it will fall off or if she tries to place a larger cup inside a smaller one, it won’t fit. This ‘wires’ the concept into her brain.

Always respond to a child’s actions. If he points at something, ask him what he means by using the name of the item; if he looks afraid of something like a pet, show him it’s safe. This attentiveness to your child’s actions show him a way of communicating and help him to learn new words. This also reassure him that you are interested in what he wants and provides him a sense of safety.

When your toddler is old enough to get around, you can have her help with clean-up and putting away toys and games. This will promote the ability to categorize or sort items. For example, teddy bears go on the shelf, push toys go in the box and stacking toys have to be put on their stand in the right order. This will prepare your child for school since sorting and categorizing is part of all early learning environments. It will also give them a sense of responsibility and also improve their fine motor skills.

Don’t be afraid to discipline your child. Talk to him about right and wrong actions, never speak of the child as being ‘bad’ or ‘good’. Always refer to the action. Always use a calm voice and speak to her about the correct action. Shouting and striking a child is never beneficial, however you must speak very seriously and firmly about what you expect from her. You can also impose consequences for more unacceptable actions like if she hurts or harms another child. An appropriate consequence would be a time-out chair. The most important point for positive discipline is consistency; never allow a child to do something that you forbade previously without explaining why it’s ok at different times.

Clearly, parental involvement is essential at all levels of child rearing for optimal brain development. Always let your child feel your joy in his progress, in his development. Always let him know that you love him and treasure every moment with him.


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Your Child’s Brain

Did you know that your baby’s brain has 100 billion cells called neurons and that each of these neurons is a part of a potential highway of information? The more these neurons are used, the more easily the information moves through their developing brains and the better prepared they are for dealing with the challenges of school and life.

The number of brain cells a child has at birth is determined by genetics, but the early childhood environment has a huge influence on how these neurons communicate with each other. Smooth easy communication within the highways of neurons of a child or an adult influence how well they perform in school or in their job.

How can you, as a parent, enhance the development of this network of neurons or highway system in your child’s brain? You’ve taken the first step by providing a nurturing stress-free environment where a child feels protected and safe. When a child is stressed, either physiologically or emotionally, the brain is flooded with glucocorticoids which cause a decrease in neuronal connections being made and the highway of information is full of potholes and broken sections. This leads to poor acquisition of new information, an inability to interact socially and ultimately poor performance in school. When the child is gently guided in his learning, fed nutritional foods and made to feel safe, nothing hinders his brain development.

Safety and comfort are not the only factors which you can influence. Your child’s brain is at a highly impressionable stage where stimulation of ideas and enrichment of concepts being introduced can most influence her ability to learn and function at a high level in society. At the neuronal level, using our highway analogy, she’s got all the materials and workmen available to build as many smooth easy-travelling highways she requires, and all she needs are the instructions to do so. These instructions would be in the form of brain usage. When she is at this stage, she needs mental stimulation in the form of challenges, creative situations, problem-solving situation, opportunities and requirement to communicate clearly and effectively. The more stimulation she receives at this stage, the more highways she builds. Conversely, the less stimulation, the fewer connections between the neurons and the more difficulty she has to process ideas and acquire new information. In the diagram below, you can see what stimulated neurons look like in figure A, B and C. They’re well-formed highways with many paths which connect to other highways. In D, E and F, there are neurons that have formed few paths to join to other neurons or have even broken down, like in the case of F in the diagram.

Research shows that  50% of a child’s capability to learn is established by the time the child is five and 80% by the time the child is eight. This is called a ‘window of opportunity’ during which a child will most benefit from enrichment which is defined by as ‘a positive biological response to a contrasting environment, in which measurable, synergistic, and global changes have occurred within the brain.’ Each neuron in a child’s brain can potentially form up to 15,000 connections to other neurons resulting in possibly trillions of connections. Enrichment, as defined above, is most beneficial during this window of opportunity and can affect a child’s learning potential by as much as 20%. This represents an enormous increase in intellectual capacity.

Good parenting, therefore, plays an important role in your child’s ultimate success, however it is now clear that the children who grow up to be the most successful adults are the ones who are provided with rich and varied early childhood stimulation. It is now apparent that children’s brains require not only proper nutrition and emotional stability during the window of opportunity, but also multiple ways of learning, varied sources of input and proper guidance in interpersonal relationships for optimum growth and development.

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