Encourage Baby’s desire to soak up the world around her by creating engaging moments during the day together.
I used to worry that my daughter, Gwen, would never talk. Or learn her colors or sing her ABCs. With a full-time job and her 3-year-old sister running around, I wasn’t exactly carving out one-on-one teaching time. “Is she going to be behind in preschool?” I fretted. The fact is, I had nothing to be anxious about: Babies and toddlers are natural learners, says Joan Ershler, Ph.D., director of the Waisman Early Childhood Program at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Your responsibility is to create an environment that supports your child’s innate desire to learn. With that in mind, I pressed top experts for “daily life” examples.
Be a Bit Kooky
Play is a key factor in building important social skills, and it can happen anywhere, says Natasha Burgert, M.D., a pediatrician in Kansas City, Missouri, and spokesperson for the American Academy of Pediatrics. Not only will you make your baby laugh when you put a toy on your head and then look all around for it, you’ll create that wonderful feeling of connection with another human being. Some other ideas for silliness: Play peekaboo with a different funny face each time, or tap your baby on the nose with a dramatic sound effect (“Boop!” “Boing!” Dawap!”).
Use Your Hands
Fingerplays like “Itsy-Bitsy Spider,” “Pat-a-Cake,” or “Where is Thumbkin?” help babies with early language skills like rhyming. The singsongy vibe is key, but so are the hand motions. “The movements help babies learn the meaning of words; as you sing that the spider is going up the waterspout, you’re showing her ‘up’ with your hands ,” says Diane Paul, Ph.D., director of clinical issues in speech-language pathology at the American Speech-Language-Hearing Association. Bonus: Fingerplays like “Five Little Monkeys” expose your baby to pre-math concepts too.
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“Feeling the texture of grass or a cool breeze on your cheeks are three dimensional experiences you can’t get in your house,” says Dr. Burgert. Even when your toddler stumbles and scrapes his knee on concrete (so hard! so scratchy!) he’s learning about his own sense of space. And marvel at how he notices everything as you walk down the sidewalk: the cracks, the ants crawling, even that shiny teeny piece of trash!
Hand Over Utensils
Teachers are seeing school-age kids struggle with holding a pencil or using scissors, says Jill Riley, an administrator of the Preschool Laboratory at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. The reason may be because toddlers are spending less time playing with blocks and other toys that build hand strength and more time with tablets or phones, which don’t. Besides limiting screen time, give your little one toddler-size forks and spoons to build his hand strength, says Dr. Burgert. “Experimenting with utensils is an easy way to bolster motor development. Your toddler can gain a surprising amount of skill with them.”
How Those First Words Happen
Have Bath Chats
One of the best times to strike up a convo with your baby is when you’re already 100 percent attentive to keep him safe in the water. Studies show that the more you talk to your child, and the more words you use, the larger his vocabulary will be, says Dr. Paul. If he’s looking at the rubber duck, talk about how yellow it is and how ducks in real life are often brown and green and, wow, do their flippers work hard underwater! If he responds with a babble or coo, pause to listen and then answer back.
Talk About Numbers
Learning the difference between “one” and “two” is a foundation of understanding numbers, says Art Baroody, Ph.D., professor emeritus of early-childhood mathematics education at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. It’s helpful to learn “one” and “two” at the same time because each serves as an example of what the other one is not. To teach: Point out “one” thing— say, a cup—then point out a pair of cups. At first, your toddler may use the word “two” to mean any number of items more than one, and that’s normal, says Dr. Baroody. It means she understands that two is different than one. It’s also means she’s ready to learn about “three!”
Even if you’re not plating up at the same time as your baby (dinner at 4:30?), have a nibble. Look excited as you bring your hand to your mouth to take a bite, then make a show of chewing. Chances are, your little one will try to copy you. Imitation is a powerful tool for learning, says Riley, and especially crucial for picking up social norms.
Focus on a Few Fave Books
The repetition of rhyming books with refrains, such as Brown Bear, Brown Bear, What Do You See?, is terrific for triggering early-language pathways, says Dr. Burgert. And don’t discount wordless picture books that tell a story, like Good Dog, Carl. Utah State University researchers found that parents used more complex words and sentences when “reading” wordless books to their baby than books with text. Now age 3, my Gwen is growing into a talkative, musical, hilarious kid. She somehow learned her colors without me drilling her like an SAT tutor, and I can’t help but look back and laugh at my earlier worried self. Guess I’m learning too!