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Child Brain Development

Simple Games that Promote Early Brain Development for Infants, Toddlers, and Twos

by Jackie Silberg
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Playing with infants, toddlers and two-year-olds is delightful. These little ones are affectionate, assertive, bouncy, challenging, curious, enchanting, energetic, funny, independent, joyful, lovable, nosey, observant, precious, self-confident, squirmy, surprising, and unpredictable.

This article is about helping to "grow" the brain of these lovely human beings by playing meaningful games with them. Whether it's through singing, dancing, cuddling, rocking, talking, smelling, or tasting, you can encourage the pathways of the brain to make new connections.

Games for Newborns

To develop your newborn's language skills, speak "parent-ese" (a high pitched voice) to your infant. By communicating with them, you will be encouraging vocal responses.

As you speak in "parent-ese," hold the baby close to your face and look directly into her eyes. Say things like, "You're such a sweet baby" or "Look at those ten little toes." You should also sing, laugh, and make funny noises to attract your baby's attention.

Brain research says that babies respond to "parent-ese"-the high-pitched sounds adults make when talking to babies. In addition, auditory development is critically enhanced by hearing varying tones, pitches, and specific sounds.

Games for 5-8 Months

To heighten your baby's hearing awareness and help wire her developing brain, play musical games.

Take a wind-up musical toy and put it out of your baby's sight. Wind it up and ask her "where's the music?" When she turns to the sound, praise her generously. Repeat this game in different parts of the room. If your baby is crawling, you can hide the music under a pillow or elsewhere so that she can crawl to it.

Brain research says that musical experiences enhance the future ability to reason abstractly, particularly in the spatial domains.

Games for 9-12 Months

Reading aloud is a wonderful gift that you can give your child.

Infants are interested in looking at pictures, feeling the shape of a book, turning the pages, and holding and touching a book.

Point to a picture and tell her what it is. When you point to the same picture several times, your child will learn the name of the object or person. Ask your child, "Where is the _____?" See if she will point to the picture. Read the same book over and over many times.

Brain research says to let your baby hold, drop, and turn the pages of a book. This kind of experimentation sets the path for reading, writing, and speech development, while also creating special moments between you and your child.

Games for 13-16 Months

Peek-a-boo is not only fun for your toddler, it is also very important for "growing" the brain. You can play peek-a-boo by…
  • Covering your eyes with your hands.
  • Putting a towel over your face.
  • Hiding behind a door or large piece of furniture, and popping out.
  • Putting your toddler's hands over her eyes and then taking them away.
  • Placing a toy or stuffed animal under a cover and pulling the cover away.
  • Drawing a face on your thumb with a marker and hiding your thumb under the other fingers.
Brain research says that with every game of peek-a-boo, thousands of connections among brain cells are formed or strengthened, adding a bit more definition and complexity to the intricate circuitry that will remain largely in place for the rest of your child's life.

Games for 17-20 Months

Playing a game of "Cat and Mouse" is great fun for children of this age.

Tell your toddler that you are a tiny little mouse and that she is a cat that is going to chase you. Tell her that the mouse says, "Squeak, squeak," and the cat says, "Meow, meow." Get down on the floor and say, "You can't catch me!" Start crawling quickly and encourage your child to chase you. Crawl behind furniture, under tables, and into other rooms. When your child understands the game, switch parts.

This is a wonderful way to develop large motor muscles. Brain research says that exercise forms and strengthens neural bridges that are necessary for learning academic skills later in life.

Games for 21-24 Months

Playing dress-up is something toddlers love to do. As you discuss various outfits, you are developing their language skills and giving them new vocabulary.

Gather together all kinds of clothing-hats, scarves, shoes, gloves, or whatever items you think your toddler would enjoy. Put on one of the hats and say, "How do you do, Mr. (child's name)?" Put on a glove and say, "Oh, this feels so smooth." Encourage your child to pick an article of clothing. Help him with words if he doesn't have his own. Soon, a conversation will develop and the language will flow.

Brain research says that the size of a two-year-old's vocabulary is strongly correlated with how much an adult talks to the child.

Games for 2 - 2 ¼ Years

Two-year-olds are fascinated by whispering and are very proud when they can do it. Whispering helps a child learn to modulate her voice, which is an important aspect of sound awareness. It also takes a lot of concentration.

Whisper something to your two-year-old. Say, "Let's clap our hands." Ask your two-year-old to whisper something back to you. Keep whispering to each other until your two-year-old understands how to make her voice very soft.

What brain research says is that each time a child is stimulated to think, either new neural bridges are formed or pre-existing ones are strengthened. The more neural bridges formed or strengthened, the more the intellect will be developed.

Games for 2 ¼ - 2 ½ Years

Two-year-olds love the rhyme, rhythm, and emotions that words conjure up, especially in poems. Nursery rhymes are especially attractive to children this age. The following are good nursery rhymes to use with young children.
  • "Hickory, Dickory, Dock"
  • "Hey, Diddle, Diddle"
  • "Jack and Jill"
  • "Humpty Dumpty"
  • "Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star"
  • "Mary Had a Little Lamb"
  • "Jack Be Nimble"
  • "Patty Cake"
Say the poem with your two-year-old. Be dramatic and try acting out the story of the nursery rhyme. The more dramatic and fun you make this, the more your child will enjoy it. These kinds of games will remain with him forever.

Brain research says that a child's ability to hear and identify rhyming sounds is a basic prerequisite for reading.

Games for 2 ½ - 3 Years

Sequencing games are wonderful for preparing your soon to be three-year-old for reading.
I can do a funny trick, funny trick, funny trick
I can do a funny trick
Here's what I can do. (Jump up and down)
Repeat the song and at the end add a second activity after jumping up and down. Keep singing the song, adding on an additional activity. Additional ideas include shaking a leg, clapping your hands, turning around, nodding your head, and touching your toes.

Brain research says that if the brain's visual and motor neurons are not trained between the ages of two and eleven, by adulthood the neurons are rarely "plastic" enough to be "rewired" for the job.

By playing all the games and activities mentioned in this article, you're taking several important steps that will encourage the pathways of your child's brain to make important and life-lasting connections.  
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Meet Our Expert
Jackie Silberg
Early Childhood Specialist
Jackie Silberg is an early childhood advocate and popular keynote speaker. Her expertise is in brain and literacy development for young children and developmental games using music.

Also known as "Miss. Jackie," she has a BA in Education, an MS in Child Development, and many graduate hours in piano and music composition.

Jackie founded and directed the Jewish Community Center School of Music in Kansas City, Missouri, and worked for KSHB television, planning the music and performing her original music for a children's program called "41 Treehouse Lane." She wrote and produced a television show for Time Warner called "Just Kids," which addressed children's needs and interests. Jackie has worked as a consultant with the Discovery Channel, setting up their music-streaming website. She gives workshops, keynote addresses, seminars, and family concerts throughout the U.S., Canada, Australia, Germany, Kuala Lumpur, and Singapore. Jackie has served as an adjunct instructor at both Emporia State University and the University of Missouri at Kansas City and lectures at Johnson County Community College in Kansas. She received the Distinguished Alumna Award from Emporia State University, in recognition of her educational achievements.

Her books have been published by Gryphon House Books in 34 different countries, and both her books and music have won many awards including: Parent's Choice, Mom's Choice Award, NAPPA Gold, Parent's Council, Early Childhood News Director's Choice, iParenting, and more.

Jackie is also the owner of Miss. Jackie Music Company in Leawood, Kansas. You can find out more on Jackie Silberg's website.
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