Creating a stimulating environment

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Research indicates that when children are raised in a stimulating environment, with lots of interaction with adults and lots of opportunity to try out new activities and new skills, they not only learn more, but their brains actually develop more fully. So by creating a learning environment for your child in his early years— especially between birth and age three—you may be helping him develop so that he's better able to learn throughout his life.

The research on stimulation and brain development does not suggest that parents use language flash cards with infants or enroll their toddler in a highly structured preschool. These kinds of "adult-controlled" experiences tend not to give children the opportunity for interaction and experimentation they find so stimulating. Instead, the research points to the benefits of singing and talking with your baby, reading books, and cuddling. These activities offer opportunities for "child-led" learning and the kind of caring responsiveness on which children thrive.

Here are some specific ways you can promote your child's active learning:

• Hold, hug, and cuddle your child. Touch not only comforts and calms your child, it triggers the release of hormones that aid digestion and growth and it builds closeness between you and your child. Give your baby opportunities to explore his developing sense of touch by letting him feel different materials, such as sand, fur, and fabrics.

• Talk with your baby—even if he is too young to understand words. Describe colors, have fun with language by barking like a dog or making rhymes. Pause to listen to what he has to say with his babbling and facial expressions, and then respond. Research shows that exposure to "live" language (rather than sound from television, radio, or recordings) is the single most effective stimulation for a child's developing brain. Studies show that the more adults talk to babies, the more quickly those children acquire language. And that effect begins at a very early age. By his first birthday, for example, a child's brain structure is already "wired" to distinguish the sounds of his native language.

• Create routines based on your child's natural rhythms. A regular schedule, with time for naps when he's tired and food when he's hungry, helps build a predictable environment where your child is rested and well nourished and feels safe. Include one-on-one time in the routine—time when you're really paying attention and responding to your child's cues.

• Make your home a safe and interesting place to explore. Rearrange your kitchen so that the lower cabinets and drawers —the ones your baby can reach—are filled with unbreakable containers, things that clatter, and pots to drum.

• Make time to take your baby outdoors so he can learn through all of his senses. Babies love things that move—leaves and swaying branches, a dog scampering about. Babies learn through smell and touch—the smell of a flower, the softness of a cat's fur, the warmth of the sun, the tingling of snowflakes on their face.

• Provide age-appropriate toys and activities.

- Your newborn can't play with toys the way an older baby can, but he likes to have interesting and colorful things to look at (a crib mobile, for example, or pictures of people's faces taped onto crib bumpers), soft and hard things to touch (such as stuffed animals and rattles), and toys that make noises and play music.

- A 3- to 6-month old baby enjoys mirrors, bath toys, cradle gyms, cuddly balls, and stuffed animals. You can play "peek-a-boo," make him laugh, repeat nursery rhymes, and hide a toy under a blanket so he can find it.

- Older babies love picture books, blocks, nesting boxes, toys with moveable parts, and ones that open and close. You can teach your baby about shapes with a shape sorter. You and your baby can put items into a box and dump them out. You can show your baby how to stack blocks and you can point out objects from a picture book. Remember, some of the best toys are simple household objects (pots, pans, containers, measuring spoons, etc.)

• As your baby gains more control over his body, allow him to practice his new skills, such as feeding himself, shaking a rattle, or sitting up with your help. When your baby is learning a new skill like rolling a ball, be patient. Most things take longer than you expect. If you stay calm, you will probably enjoy your time together more.

• Share your child's interests and show that they're important to you. As your child approaches his first birthday, he may begin to show a special interest in animals, trucks, or a certain kind of play, such as dress-up, climbing, or throwing. Pay attention to those signals and help your child find opportunities to explore that interest. It might be a matter of visiting a neighbor's pet, walking to a construction site to watch the trucks, making a collection of dress-up props available, or playing catch with a soft ball.

The times you can give your baby your undivided attention—what some people call "quality time"—can be wonderful for both of you. They can be special moments like cuddling in a rocking chair or showing your baby a picture book or bouncing him gently on your lap. But think of all the time you spend with your child as "quality time." There is no more valuable way you can help your child to learn than by sharing everyday life experiences together.

Babies learn by interacting with their parents—smiling, cooing, talking, laughing, cuddling, and playing

Hold, hug, and cuddle your child

Talk with your baby, in words and in babbling baby talk "conversations"

Read books to your baby, starting with simple board books and picture books

Make your home a safe and interesting place to explore

Provide age-appropriate toys and activities, allowing him to shake a rattle, bang a spoon on a pan, throw a ball, stack blocks, or play "peek-a-boo" when he's able

Let him observe, and talk to him about, the activities you do as part of your daily routine—preparing food, turning on and off the light, opening and closing doors

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