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By Margaret Bake
What is more wonderful than the birth of a baby? When your child is born everyone celebrates and wants only the best for that child. You have been preparing for this baby for a long time. First, you prepared for the baby's physical needs: food to eat, clothing and diapers to wear, a safe place to sleep and a safe way to ride in the car. But after those needs were met, you may be wondering what you should do or buy to ensure that this child will grow and develop to his maximum potential. It seems that the more you explore the huge array of books, products and materials available, the more confused you become. Well, here is the good news: your baby already has the very most important learning tool he will ever need--YOU! There is absolutely nothing on the market that can even begin to compare with the influence that loving, involved parents have on their child. And here's more good news: you can encourage this development in your child without expensive materials and equipment; in fact, much of what your child needs to learn and grow is probably already in your home.
A baby is born with all of our potential but none of our experience, so you need to provide a wide variety of experiences for her. This is not difficult to do. Take the baby with you as you run your errands or as you move throughout the house, and talk to her about what you are doing. This is the best way to encourage speech and language development in your child. When you talk to her you are surrounding her with an "envelope of language," giving her vocabulary words to describe things that she is already interested in and eager to learn about. Frequency, as well as content, is important, as stated in an article published in the New York Times: The number of words an infant hears each day is the single most important predictor of later intelligence, school success, and social competence.
It is very important to share books with your child every day. We are fortunate in this area to have access to wonderful libraries, where all sorts of books can be borrowed without charge. Homemade books are also easy to make. If you fasten together four sandwich-sized reclosable plastic storage bags, you have created an eight-page book that you can open to insert photos of family members or pictures of your child's favorite toys, foods or animals cut from magazines or downloaded from the internet. Very young babies prefer looking at the human face and prefer high-contrast pictures, so simple black-and-white drawings of a face can be placed within the infant's visual range (between 4 and 30 inches). The face that a baby loves to look at the most, of course, is yours.
Many everyday activities will help your child develop his thinking. A toddler loves to assist in the kitchen. He can practice counting as he stirs the batter or adds ingredients. He learns about transformations as he sees the cookie dough he helped to make change into cookies or sees the hard potatoes he helped peel become soft after cooking. When your toddler helps you sort the clean laundry, match socks into pairs, set the table or put silverware into the correct places, he is practicing math skills.
The development of large muscle skills of infants and toddlers occurs in a predictable sequence. Typical babies roll over before they sit up, crawl before they stand, and walk before they run. In recent years there has been some concern among the child development professionals that some of these motor skills are delayed because infants do not have the opportunities they need to practice them. Baby swings, infant carriers, high chairs and bouncy seats all are useful (though not essential) pieces of equipment but all restrict free movement and you must be careful not to overuse them. Placing your baby on a clean floor with interesting objects around will encourage her to move her body all about and exercise all of her large muscles. It is particularly important that she has the opportunity to spend some waking time on her tummy. She is using a different set of muscles in that position than when she is on her back.
Children love to be outside. It is a wonderful place to exercise their large muscles. Even ten or fifteen minutes every day is valuable. A former BYU-Idaho faculty member in the Department of Home and Family loved to say, "There is no such thing as bad weather. There is just inappropriate clothing." It's something to think about here in Rexburg, particularly during this snowy winter!
As your child begins to get control of his fingers and hands, there are many kinds of homemade playthings that encourage small muscle development. If you cut a slit in the plastic lid of a container and give your baby the metal lids from frozen juice cans to drop inside, he will love the noise they make when they fall and will want to dump them all out and do it again. Rolled-up socks make wonderful soft balls for him to practice throwing into a box or basket. Empty food boxes or soda bottles become bowling pins to knock over with the sock balls. A clear plastic container such as an empty water bottle makes a wonderful shaker when partially filled with rice. If other small objects are added, it becomes an "I Spy" bottle. The objects appear and disappear as your child turns it. If it is filled with colored water and oil your child will enjoy shaking it and then watch the oil and water separate. Be sure the lid is glued securely for safety. Homemade play dough is always popular, and recipes are easy to find.
Moving and singing to music are lots of fun and encourage growth in every area of development. There are many simple movement props you can create. Give her a scarf to wave, a jingle bell on a string, rhythm sticks made from two unsharpened pencils, or shakers made from plastic Easter eggs with rice, beans or popcorn kernels inside (glued and taped shut). Then turn on the music and dance!
Of course, not everything your child plays with has to be homemade. But when you buy toys for your child, look for "open-ended" playthings such as dolls, trucks or wooden building blocks. These are toys that can be played with in numerous ways by children of different ages. Infants need safe objects to explore with hands and mouths. Toddlers need sensory materials to investigate like water, shaving cream or grain in large containers. They love dishes, hats, old jewelry or dress-up clothes for pretend play. And don't be deceived by a toy that has flashing lights, plays music, or moves around. Those features do not necessarily make it a good choice. Your own creativity and imagination can create wonderful playthings and activities that will support and encourage your child's growth and development. You are your child's first and best teacher. Trust yourself, relax, and have fun as you help your child learn and grow.