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It's a well-known fact that intelligent dads usually have intelligent kids, which means that the next Einstein could be sitting in your living room watching Teletubbies. But when it comes to "smarts," genes aren't everything. Nurture is just as important as nature, and you can give even the brightest toddler a boost in the learning department by providing brain exercise in the form of new experiences.
Right now, your child's brain is literally under construction. Over the next two years, trillions of connections will form between her brain cells, and those connections will help determine everything, from how well she'll speak a foreign language to how good she'll be at trigonometry, history, or quantum physics. Every interesting new experience you offer her petting a goat, smelling a flower, reading a new book will build new connections, and those connections translate into increased brainpower.
Show her how bathtub toys float and how rocks dropped into a puddle sink. Buy her a set of toy tools, and show her how they work. Have her put her hands on her chest, to feel her own heartbeat and breathing, and then let her do the same to you. Let her watch and help (or at least think she's helping!) as you fold the laundry, vacuum the car, cook a meal, hammer a nail, or play a musical instrument. Take bus rides together to parks, stores, and restaurants. These real-life lessons will stick with your child much longer than anything she'd learn from a worksheet.
A Toddler "Lesson Plan"
Though most parents want to start with academic skills, such as counting and reading, you're better off teaching these skills at the preschool or elementary school stage, when your child is ready to master them. Instead work on basic thinking skills, including:
- Problem solving. Stacking toys, big keys and locks, nesting toys, shape sorters, simple puzzles, oversized nuts and bolts, and blocks will stimulate your toddler's gray matter. Have him sort toys, nuts, books, and balls by size. And give him some everyday challenges. For instance, say, "Your toys won't fit in your toy box. What should we do?" Ask him, "Where does the water in the hose come from?" and turn the water on and off at the spigot so that he begins to learn cause and effect.
- Discrimination. Work on the concepts of same and different. For instance, show her three spoons and one cup, and say, "What's different?" "What's the same?"
- Memory. Let your toddler watch while you hide plastic animals, spoons, or small toys under a cloth, and then ask, "Where did Daddy put it?" Also, show her photos of recent events a holiday, family gathering, or birthday party and ask her about the people in the photos.
- Imaginative play. Foster your child's creativity by playing imagination games. For instance, pretend that you're both cars and race around the yard, or pretend that you're animals in the zoo. Play games where she feeds her dolly or Dad. Play barber or beauty shop, or grocery store, or stage a puppet show.
Also, buy her a play doctor's kit, a toy vacuum cleaner, a telephone, a toy lawn mower, pretend food, tools, or other toys that will let her play at being a grown-up. Pass on some of your old clothes, too; your toddler will love dressing up in your old hats, socks, and shoes, or even lugging around an old briefcase.
Show and tell helps
When you're explaining new concepts to your toddler, repetition is crucial, and it may take five, ten, or even more tries for your toddler to learn a new piece of information. Also, hands-on learning is likely to stick in her head far better than lectures. You can talk about "bigger" and "smaller" all day long, but you're better off grabbing a glob of Play-Doh, showing her how to make tiny, medium-sized, and huge clay snakes, and then letting her try it herself.
Similarly, you can illustrate the concept of through very simply by sticking a straw through a cookie or a ball of Play-Doh. If you're teaching her words like under, on, and through, create an obstacle course that involves crawling under tables, climbing over pillows, and going through tunnels. Use blocks to illustrate tall and short, or glasses of water to show the difference between cool and warm.
Questions...and more questions...
Talking to your toddler is important too, especially when it comes to answering her questions. Her endless questions may drive you crazy at times, but she needs to learn a million facts about her universe, and you're the person she trusts the most to have straight answers. The constant questioning of toddlers starts early, with a one-year-old's "What's that?" and advances to a two- to three-year-old's "Why is the sun warm?" and similar toughies.
Try to answer every question your toddler dreams up, using simple language she can understand. (Of course, you don't need to answer every question fully. One of my favorite overheard conversations in a grocery store went like this: "Daddy, what's this?" "It's a box of Tampax." "What's it for?" "It's for ladies." "What do they do with it?" "They stick it in the bathroom cabinet. Now" note of desperation in Dad's voice "let's go pick out some cookies!")
If you're one of those lucky dads who's home every night and every weekend, it won't be hard to find opportunities to teach your child about her world. But if you're so swamped with overtime work or other obligations that you don't have time to make Play-Doh snakes, build obstacle courses, or take your child to the zoo, you can still give your toddler's brain cells a workout even if you can only spare ten or fifteen minutes at bedtime. How? Just by picking up a book.
Reading is one of the most important learning activities you can share with your child, because children who are read to have larger vocabularies and do better in school than other children. So if your work schedule allows, start a bedtime-story reading ritual with your toddler. In addition to teaching her new words and exposing her to new worlds, a cuddle with Dad and a bedtime-story session at the same time each night will relax her and help her fall asleep which means that you might get a chance to read a little of your own book!
When you read to your toddler, let her be involved in the story you're telling. Ask, "What did the lion say?" or say, "Show me the dog." Ask her to turn the pages for you; she'll enjoy participating. To improve her memory skills, ask her if she remembers what happened in earlier parts of the story. And relate the stories to her own life: If you're reading about ice cream, go open the freezer and look at the ice cream you have. If possible, insert her name into the story as you're reading.
When sitting still to hear a story is a problem
If you have a squirmy toddler who has trouble sitting still for long, give her a small toy to hold. Pick one that relates to the book; for instance, if you're reading about toy cars, have her hold a car. Encourage her to hold her toy car up to the picture of the car in the book, so she can develop the concept that pictures represent real objects. Kids often enjoy reading a story while rocking in a rocking chair.
Not that book again...
Your brain may recoil at the idea of reading The Very Hungry Caterpillar for the hundred-and-sixty-seventh time, but a familiar book is as great a joy to your toddler as that well-worn tape of Terminator II is to you. If your toddler wants to read her favorite books over and over and over again, let it happen. As you read the same stories over and over, your child will naturally begin making the connection between the story you're telling and the words she sees on the page.
Make it fun, not hard work
It is fun to find and trace letters with fingers and to go on a letter hunt. Your child will soon be able to spot the first letter of her name and D for Dad every time it turns up. Bring the pages of books to life for your child with funny voices, entertaining sound effects, and insightful Dad-type commentary, and make reading time a fun time with lots of cuddling and praise. Reading with Dad is fun!
The more you play with your toddler today, the better off she'll be when she sets foot in the classroom. And ask yourself this: When you look back on your own life, do you say, "Gee, I wish I'd spent more time with flash cards?"
Give your toddler a nature lesson by letting her help you plant a garden. Give her a cooking lesson by showing her how to make instant pudding. Give her a physics lesson in the bathroom; flush the toilet and let her watch the water swirl down. Introduce her to the ants and earthworms in your backyard, and water the yard together so she can learn how water comes out of the hose.
Kids love getting mail, even a scrap of paper. For a younger toddler, write your child a short note, draw a picture, a doodle, even a stick figure of Dad, or cut out a picture of an animal from a magazine.
An older child can "dictate" a letter to you, other family members, or even your family pet. Put the picture or letter into an envelope your child can open. Write your child's name on the outside, and add a picture of a stamp. Make a mailbox, and then practice "delivering" the mail.
Game tip: You can make a mailbox out of a cardboard shoe box, or buy a small mailbox at the hardware store.
"Laundry Basket Rebound"
One to four years
Give Mom a hand and earn some bonus points. It's a great way to learn new words and practice grasping and releasing objects. (Handy for that first trout-fishing trip.) Sorting laundry teaches your child how to match and put things in order.
- Find all the socks, washrags, and towels, and practice tossing different items of laundry into a basket.
- Have your child help you sort laundry by color white socks and dark socks. Sort laundry by big and little socks, towels, etc.
Game tip: Kids love playing peekaboo in the basket. Throw a shirt or towel over your toddler's head and say, "Where's (child's name)?" Act surprised when the towel or shirt falls off.
One to two years
Help kids learn mine and yours (everything is mine to a toddler). There's a top-notch toy waiting in the closet: all toddlers are fascinated by shoes. Filling Dad's shoes is a tall order, but lots of fun!
- Take a couple of pairs of Dad's shoes and a pair of your child's shoes.
- Let your toddler try putting his shoes into yours.
- Kids who can walk think it's very cool to stand in Dad's shoes.
- Explore the contrast of big and little shoes, in, and out.
Game tip: The laces of shoes can be a choking hazard, so consider removing them before playing.
"Where's the Ball?"
One to three years
Share the fun and excitement of opening a gift every day. Cardboard boxes make great hiding places. Sharpen your child's memory and teach patience at the same time!
- Let your toddler watch you wrap a toy and put it in a cardboard box.
- Ask your child to find the toy he watched you wrap and place in the box.
- Find two toys that will fit in your hands. Open your hands so your toddler can see what's in them and say, "Where's the (one toy)?" or "Where's the (other toy)?" Once he masters this step, close your hands and say, "Where's the (one toy)?" or "Where's the (other toy)?"
Game tip: You can also play these games by hiding objects in your pockets. Ask your child to find the toy in your pocket and let him reach in and grab it.
"The Toddler Free Throw"
One to three years
Kids love helping Dad unload the family's groceries.
- Hand your toddler safe items to carry.
- With kids over two, you can get some early T-ball practice. Have your child catch soft items like a package of napkins, or a loaf of bread.
- You can also play I Spy while unpacking groceries. For example, "I spy something hard, soft, crackly. Can you find it, too?"
Game tip: Have Dad carry cleaning supplies, eggs, and groceries in glass containers.
"Bowling for Brainpower"
Two to three years
Who knew that bowling could build fine motor skills and teach kids how to follow directions?
- Place plastic or soft bowling pins on the floor or a low table.
- Have your child roll a soft ball at the pins.
- Count how many pins have been knocked over.
Game tip: Practice rolling the ball back and forth to each other to show your child how to keep the ball on the floor.
One to two years
Does your child cry when you leave? Here's a great toy that shows your child that Dad will always come back. A guaranteed winner, this toy helps your child get more comfortable with separation. It also builds memory skills and the understanding that things exist when you can't see them.
This is a great game that helps your child practice learning to wait and persistence.
- Start with a jack-in-the-box in open position.
- Help your child push the toy down into the box.
- Ask your child, "Where did the toy go?"
- "Let's find it by pushing the roller/crank."
- Help your child as needed until the toy pops up.
- "You did it! Let's do it again."
Game tip: Purchase an easy-to-open jack-in-the-box that uses a roller, not a tiny crank.
"Hole in One"
One year to eighteen months
Here's a favorite brainteaser that builds memory and listening skills, as well as fine motor coordination.
- Use a cardboard tube, as well as some small toys or finger food such as Cheerios, Goldfish crackers, or a ball.
- Hand your child the object and ask him to put it in the tube.
- Ask, "Where did it go?"
Game tip: Check small toys to be sure they are not a choking hazard.
"Eye on the Ball"
One to three years
Want to build your kid's brainpower? Playing this game will help him recognize differences in size and shape a handy skill when he learns to read, too.
- You'll need two balls, one small and one large.
- Ask your child, "Where's the big ball?"
- Use a big loud voice when saying "big."
- Ask your child, "Where's the little ball?"
- Use a softer, quieter voice when saying "small."
- Get additional practice exploring hard and soft, cold and hot, or wet and dry washcloths.
Game tip: Choose items that are the same color to help your child identify differences in size or shape.
Tips for Winning
Be understanding if your toddler loses interest and wanders off when you're only partway through an interesting explanation of how birds fly, or why snow melts. She's not being rude; she's simply not capable of paying attention for more than a few minutes at a stretch. When she's older, she'll ignore you on purpose; right now, however, it's unintentional.
See what interests your child intellectually, and follow her lead. For instance, if birds fascinate her, buy a bird feeder and help her sprinkle birdseed in it every day. If she likes to make music, pick up a triangle, some maracas, or a harmonica. A budding mechanic? Buy her a toy workbench and tools.
Let your child know his questions are important. If you're rushing off to work and don't have time to answer one of those complicated queries ("Daddy, why don't fish drown?"), promise that you'll get back to him later, rather than merely saying, "I'm too busy for that now." (And don't forget to get back to him!)
Educational supply stores aren't just for teachers. These stores are wonderful sources of toddler treasures, including mind-stretching games, books, and toys. They're also great places to take a toddler, because almost everything in them is unbreakable.
Introduce your toddler to the library or bookstore, and let him choose his own books. (Steer him toward virtually indestructible cardboard books.) At home, put his selections on a special bookshelf, and let him pick one each night at story time.
Resist the urge to correct your child each time he mispronounces a word slightly or makes a minor grammatical error. He'll pick up correct grammar and pronunciation eventually, simply by listening to grown-ups talking.
Small toys intended for older children (such as Lego and Playmobil sets) are a choking hazard. Keep them well out of your toddler's reach. Set aside gifts that aren't yet safe for later. Whistles aren't good toys for toddlers. Small parts can be broken from the whistle and inhaled.
The great outdoors is full of learning opportunities, but make sure your toddler is safe when he's out in your front or back yard. Teach him to stay away from the driveway, and keep him away from garage doors, because even those with safety mechanisms can sometimes fail and trap a child underneath. And always stay with him, even if he's just going outside for a minute or two.
Teach your toddler to ask permission, both from you and from a pet's owner, before he or she approaches or touches any dog or cat. It's good manners, and it can prevent a serious bite or scratch.
Kids under two stick tiny toys and objects, such as wads of paper or gum, into their noses and ears. Toddlers may also try to swallow pennies. Keep an eagle eye when small objects are in close range, especially when out and about.
Throw away antifreeze and drain cleaner, or put them in a locked cabinet. Put a lock on your medicine cabinet. Keep vitamins, mouthwash, and all medicines up high. Kids think of vitamins as candy; caustic liquids can look like juice.
Play classical music, show tunes, or jazz at dinnertime. It'll put everyone in a mellow mood and help your toddler develop an ear for good music.
Read the backs of cereal boxes together at the breakfast table. Your toddler won't recognize the words yet, but he'll enjoy looking at the bright colors while you do the reading.
Get "down and dirty" with your toddler every once in a while. (Dads are usually better at this than moms are.) Play in the leaves, give your child a mini-lesson in geography by building mud rivers and mountains together, or teach him about different shapes by making sand castles, using a variety of cups, bowls, square food containers, toilet paper tubes, and pails to mold your masterpieces.
While your toddler's too young to learn addition or subtraction, you can incorporate counting into his games. Count, "One, two, three!" as he jumps, or count his blocks as he stacks them up. As he hears you count out loud, he'll begin to learn the names of numbers.
Make personalized books for your child, using photos and stories about his pets, family members, trips, special events, or even everyday activities. Or, if you're into computers, create "virtual" books and post them on your toddler's very own website.
Help your child learn to categorize objects by sorting them for instance, foods, books, cars, and animals.
Put cardboard books in the car. They may get chewed on, but your toddler will learn to love reading in the car on car trips later. Books that have flaps with pictures underneath build memory.
Name vehicles cars, trucks, cement mixers, bulldozers while traveling around town.
If you have a workshop, let your child help sort scrap wood, large nuts, and bolts.
Call for the Referee
Your kid is number one. Of course your daughter is the smartest kid in play group. Your son can recite Cat in the Hat from memory, and anyone can see he's headed for Harvard. It's just that the other parents won't admit these obvious truths. You know that comparing your kid with the others roving the sandbox can create problems. Talking to your partner about those other parents and kids will help you keep your perspective.
When you come home, the house always seems to be a disaster area, with toys everywhere. It is amazing how much mess a toddler can make. Partners may disagree about how many toys a child actually needs to have and how much money should be spent for toys, but there is no way you are going to have a completely neat house when you have a toddler unless you keep her in her room 24/7. Ease up, pitch in, and help with the pickup.
How important is it to enroll your toddler in music, art, gymnastics, and preschool classes? You wonder if you should take your toddler to a toddler music class that's starting on Saturdays nearby. He can't sit still very long, but lots of the other kids in the neighborhood are going. Your partner may think it's too expensive, but you don't want your child left out. A music class that encourages movement in addition to listening might be just the ticket for a musical adventure and help your little wiggler channel some of that energy, too. However, you might want your Saturdays free for downtime. Couples often have different views about the need for educational classes for toddlers. Take a look at the budget, as well as the calendar, together.
My kid loves Baby Einstein videos and Sesame Street on television. How much TV/video is okay? And does it hurt their brain development and learning?
Watching an hour or two a day of TV or videos doesn't do any harm to your child's brain development or learning potential. Sitting down in front of educational videos that feature animals, trains, music, and the like builds vocabulary and independence. It also helps both parents and kids unwind. Research supports the notion that children who achieve academic success can benefit from limited amounts of educational TV or videos. Young children do not benefit from watching violent television, including the news, wrestling, and most cartoons.
Our toddler always wants me to play with him. When will he learn to play on his own? How can I help make that happen?
Sit next to your child and encourage him to play independently. For example, provide commentary while your child is building with blocks. Say, "I like how you are building that tower all by yourself." Gradually increase the physical distance between you and your child, and continue to provide support and praise as he plays independently. Kids begin to play on their own sometime between eighteen months and two and a half years old.
Our three-year-old likes to listen to books on tape. Can I play these for her at bedtime?
Story tapes have their place, but they're no substitute for a warm, cuddly, interactive dad. A tape won't stop to explain a word your toddler doesn't know, or read the best parts over again, or laugh along at the funny parts. It's okay to supplement story reading with tapes, but your toddler will get far more enjoyment and mental stimulation when you perform "live." Books on tape can help on long car rides, though, if you can stand the story line.
My two-year-old loves to move my computer mouse and play with my keyboard. Is he ready for his own software?
Yes! Good software programs for toddlers include Jump Start Baby, Jump Start Toddler, Reader Rabbit Toddler, and Millie & Bailey Preschool. At first, let your toddler simply enjoy manipulating the mouse, looking at the bright colors, and listening to the music. If he's ready to start recognizing colors, letters, and numbers, fine; if not, don't push him.
Your toddler will also enjoy sitting on your lap while you play grown-up computer games but stick to innocuous games such as The Sims or Railroad Tycoon, and avoid blood-and-guts games like Quake (unless you want to pay for years of therapy later). Let him move the mouse occasionally, and talk about what's happening on the screen. ("Look Daddy just connected Philadelphia and Pittsburgh by rail, and his stock split twice!") He won't understand the game, but he'll pick up new words and learn that computers are entertaining.
Some toddlers can manipulate a regular mouse easily, while others have difficulty. If yours is one of the latter, try a Microsoft EasyBall, which has an oversized trackball and a big button. Kid-sized keyboards are also available, but they're expensive and aren't really necessary.
My child doesn't like to be read to. He has trouble sitting still and wants to get up and go after a few minutes of being read to, or he keeps turning the pages.
Start with books with few words to a page and lots of pictures. Talk about the pictures and let your child turn the page and then talk about the next pictures. Have your toddler hold a toy that relates to the story a car or an animal are two that work. Keep your reading sessions short just a few minutes and lengthen them as your toddler's attention span grows. Be sure to have story time at a time of day when your toddler has eaten and has had some big-muscle exercise. Bedtime is the perfect time for most youngsters.
Copyright © 2005 by Susan Fox