“Babies have an amazing capacity to learn. One of the most exciting advances in child development has been the discovery that babies actually learn before they are born,” says Dr Lin Day, founder of Baby Sensory (visit www.babysensory.ae to find classes in the UAE). “Even more amazing is the fact that during the first year, babies learn more than at any other time in their lives. By the first birthday, the baby’s brain has doubled in volume as a direct result of the trillions of connections made between the brain cells. This is why it is so important to introduce a rich variety of sensory experiences at every possible opportunity.”
Although genes provide the basic blueprint for a child’s intelligence, their experiences influence how and when such genes are expressed. Some of the most important experiences that will shape the architecture of a baby’s brain come from their interactions with significant adults in their lives. This is why the activities you do with your child when they are little are so important. Babies naturally reach out for interaction through babbling, facial expressions and movements. The adults caring for them respond in kind with sounds and gestures. This back-and-forth process, known as ‘serve and return’, plays a vital role in developing the wiring of the brain. Studies have shown that children who miss out on this sort of nurturing in the early years of life will have smaller brains – they literally will not develop the foundational cells upon which certain areas of intelligence and emotion can be built.
But you don’t need a degree to take on the role of teacher to your tot. Helping them learn is easy when you know what activities are most effective at different ages and stages. Get a head start with these expert tips for everyday activities that will make a real difference to their learning.
Newborn to 6 months:
Be a chatterbox
She adds, “Read to your baby for the same reason. Parents also need to focus on social and emotional development at this age, so cuddle, hold and play with your baby often.”
Dare to explore
Toys with texture
“Likewise, there are many wonderful baby toys with scrunchy, squeaky and soft parts to enable your little one to appreciate different textures. This helps baby to develop his or her sense of touch,” she adds.
Try tummy time
To make tummy time even more fun, try placing a ball in front of baby within easy reach. As soon as he touches the ball, it will roll away. Baby will either ‘swim’ on his tummy or lift himself up on his forearms in an attempt to reach it.
Break into song
It can be useful to incorporate music into your daily routine – lots of children love singing at bath time, or enjoy a favourite song at nappy-change time. “Don’t worry if you are not the world’s most competent singer, just be enthusiastic and they will love it,” says Caroline.
Read the signs
“Baby signing is the use of simple gestures – or signs – in conjunction with speech to enable young children to communicate what they may need or want before they are able to utter their first words,” says Katie McLean, founder of Katie Jane Dubai, which offers baby sign language classes (Katiejanedubai.com).
“From the age of around seven months, babies’ hand muscles are sufficiently developed to enable them to sign. The benefits become apparent as you start to see your baby responding to simple gestures. This, in turn, creates a more engaging caregiver through increased eye contact, interactive activities – signing to songs and stories – and an intimate understanding of your baby’s needs.”
When your little one reaches toddlerhood, he or she can even use signing in conjunction with speech – talk about layering up the learning!
Get some face time
Be a masseuse
“The myelin sheath is the protective covering around baby’s nerves. When a nerve is fully insulated, it speeds up the transmission of impulses from the brain to the rest of the body. As babies are not born with fully coated nerves, any skin stimulation from baby massage assists this process.”
Essentially, this improves baby’s brain-body communication. “As most of baby’s major brain connections are made in the first three years of their life, by improving the efficiency of the baby’s brain’s communication, we can dramatically increase their learning capability,” she concludes. You can start baby massage from day one – even for healthy pre-term babies.
6 months to 1 year:
Experiment with movement
Get a head start on maths
Get your groove on
Action songs that introduce a pattern or sequence might include Pat-a-cake, If you’re happy and you know it and Head and shoulders, knees and toes.
Perfect the pincer grip
Bang the drum
Alternatively, improvise! Bang yogurt pots together, fill a shampoo bottle with dried peas to make a shaker, use two saucepan lids to make a fantastic pair of cymbals.
“Props are also a fun element of music making,” says Caroline. “Why not hide behind scarves while singing a peekaboo song, use soft farmyard toys for Old McDonald or liven up The Wheels on the Bus by using streamers with the actions? Try showing your child pictures to accompany the songs they are singing, so that they understand the concepts more quickly.”
Age 1 year to 18 months:
Crunch the numbers
As well as being fun, number rhymes introduce babies to the sounds of numbers and enable babies to learn patterns and sequences.”
Songs of choice include One, two, three, four, five, once I caught a fish alive and Five currant buns in the baker’s shop while books like The Very Hungry Caterpillar and Five Little Ducks can be used to reinforce number sounds and introduce the idea that numbers relate to different amounts.
Touchy-feely book time
“They are able to imitate the inflections of speech, sometimes in an almost grown-up way, but the words are not yet there.
“At this age, your little one is soaking up vocabulary like a sponge and while they may not be saying many words yet, they are understanding more and more.”
Susan adds that story time is a great source of new words and children love to listen. “This can be a bedtime routine with a parent or an activity at nursery with their teacher. Touchy-feely books are great at maintaining a young child’s attention while still picking up new words and phrases.”
Age 18 months to 2 years:
Encourage some self-care
Join a playgroup
Age 2 to 3 years:
“The earlier you introduce a second language the easier it will be for your child to pick up its unique sounds,” says Nadia Wehbe of Baby Arabia, which offers language programs for kids at soft play centres around the UAE. “The ability to hear different phonetic pronunciations is sharpest before age three and we lose the capacity to hear and produce certain sounds if we aren’t exposed to them early on. Learning a few words in a second language will give your child essential tools for appreciating it now and learning to speak it later.”
Development of social skills is important too. “Encourage play with others so they learn how to share and take turns and also socialise with children their age,” says Monica.
Create a cosy reading corner
A creative space
Get back to nature
“We don’t all have such big gardening spaces at home, but planting in pots can be just as fun.”
Age 3 to 4 years:
Join the band
Count your lucky stars
“We love to use fun sound games with the children to help them develop an awareness of the first and last sounds in a word,” says Susan Roberts. “In small groups, we use a variety of familiar objects and ask a child to find the object beginning with an ‘ssss’ or ‘aaaa’, for instance. This is similar to an ‘eye-spy’ game but using phonics sounds rather than letters and limiting the possibilities to a selection of objects.
“We learn letter formation using sandpaper letters, whereby the children follow the textured letter with their finger under the guidance of an adult,” she adds. “The touch sense acts as sort of cognitive ‘glue’ for the senses of hearing and seeing, allowing the child to take in this information with ease, while having a pleasant experience.”