An astonishingly huge amount of learning takes place between your child’s birth and their 5th birthday. Your child’s brain is primed for learning new things at a very rapid rate. It’s important to make the most of your child’s first few years by maximizing their learning potential, so that they can grow up to be as smart and happy as possible. Here are some ways to accomplish this.
Constant verbal communication is key.
Most kids learn about one new word per week between 18 months and 2 years of age and can say about 50 to 100 words by age 2. Brain Rules for Baby editor Tracy Cutchlow says that the more you talk to your toddler, the more words she’ll learn.
Possibly the best way to expose your toddler to new words is to “narrate your day”. Whatever you’re doing, talk about it with your toddler while you’re doing it. Your child will learn thousands of vocabulary words this way. Reading fun children’s books is also an excellent way. By combining the two methods, you can maximize your child’s vocabulary.
Do make sure your toddler’s hearing a steady stream of language – butnot from the television. The language on TV is too fast for toddlers to decipher for learning, and it’s not interactive. While toddlers do need to hear people speaking, they also need human interaction to make the most of the experience.
By keeping up a constant conversational flow, using a diverse vocabulary, you’re setting your child up for better reading, writing, and spelling skills down the road.
Don’t forget about emotional intelligence.
Cognitive and social development is very connected to the development of emotional intelligence. By helping your child to understand and deal with emotions, and read emotional cues, your child will gain a huge advantage.
Say your child is playing in the sandbox when another child, unsteady on his feet, bumps into him. “Help your toddler see when things are an accident,” Flom says, “so he doesn’t harbor a grudge and think it’s on purpose.”
By saying, “whoops! that was an accident”, or something similar, you can help your toddler recognize the nature of the incident. If you let your child think that it was done deliberately, he or she is more likely to have poor emotional intelligence and social skills in the future. The same thing goes for positive events. To give another example, if your child’s playdate friend gives them a hug, point out the motivations, nature, and implications of that event. This will help your child to recognize love, which will help them in life.
You can say something like, “See how you shared, see how happy it made her?” By helping your child connect the feeling to the action, you’re building emotional intelligence that will serve your child for a lifetime.
Play it smart.
“Mature dramatic play is a specific kind of play that focuses on impulse control and self-regulation,” says Tracy Cutchlow, editor of Brain Rules for Baby. She suggests two games to try with your toddler that help kids learn and practice impulse control.
Play a simple game of opposites with your child. You can take a set of pictures and show them to your child one by one, asking him or her to say what the opposite of the picture is. For example, a picture of nighttime should receive the response “day”.
Not ready for such a verbal game? Try a rhythm game instead. “You pat the drum once,” she says, “and your child is supposed to pat it twice.”
Both of these simple games serve the purpose of helping your child to learn how to stop and think. Instead of blurting out the first thing that comes to mind, your child will learn how to think about the correct response before thinking. This type of game is easy to make up, so you can come up with a few different ones to give your child variety.
Impulse control is linked to stronger math skills and is key to building executive function – the brain’s ability to plan, set goals, and to stay on task. Executive function is a higher predictor of academic success than IQ.
Make a creative space.
Your toddler’s play area is an important part of the house. Forget about home design principles, what really matters is creativity.
To foster your toddler’s natural creativity, he says, create an environment that’s imagination-friendly. That doesn’t mean the latest and greatest toys – in fact, Medina says, an empty box and a couple of crayons may just be the best toys on earth. Instead, it means giving your child time and space to try new things.
Multiple forms of creativity are helpful. Offer a variety of activities to your child, such as music, painting, drawing, blocks, dolls, costumes, toy kitchen sets, etc. The more avenues there are for your child to be creative, the more creative he or she will grow up to be.
By praising your child’s effort, or things that they have control over, rather than attributes such as intelligence, which they don’t control, you can help your child to grow up to be a hard worker and excellent student.
So, while you might really want to say, “My little cutie is so smart,” what you really should say is, “Wow, you must’ve worked really hard.” The focus is on what the child did to produce the work rather than the outcome, and it helps children associate hard work with success.
The reason this works is because it will help them to form what’s called a “growth mindset” as opposed to a “fixed mindset”. In other words, they’ll grow up to believe that they can achieve their goals if they try, rather than what they’re capable of is predetermined.
“More than 30 years of study show that children raised in growth mindset homes consistently outscore their fixed-mindset peers in academic achievement,” he says. “Children with a growth mindset tend to have a refreshing attitude toward failure. They don’t ruminate over their mistakes. They simply perceive errors as problems to be solved, and then go to work.”
Point your finger.
At about 9 months, children begin to follow your finger to figure out what you’re pointing at, says BYU associate professor Ross Flom. Research shows that children learn language faster if you point to an object – like a truck – while saying the word. And by now, your toddler is probably really good at this game.
Having this shared interaction is called “joint attention.” It means your child has the ability to communicate to you about something (and someone) outside the two of you. And once your child has this ability, Flom says, your communication can become more elaborate.