Chat with your children. Sing and dance and play with them. Hang out, build snow forts in winter and sandcastles at the beach. "The Future of Children," a joint publication of Princeton University and the Brookings Institute, concludes that nurturing human interaction boosts brain development in kids, from infancy on. Gear a fun activity to a child’s interest and age, keep it hands-on and in-person, and you’ll likely raise a bright and curious little person.
Heart to Art
Hugs, healthcare and a happy home set the stage for children's cognitive growth by developing the brain of the whole child, leading to emotional regulation, social skills, perception and awareness. An early sense of emotional security and confidence has a direct bearing on academic performance later in life, according to research conducted by Harvard University's Center on the Developing Child. Attention that takes the form of novel and shared activities works at every age. Introduce babies to a new picture or mobile when they are alert and playful; point out shapes, name colors and "discover" it together. Finger-paint and sculpt clay with toddlers and preschoolers. From preschool through primary school, go on painting or sketching field trips in the backyard or a nearby park. North Dakota State University Extension points out that art stimulates the brain centers that control emotion, cognition and memory.
Talk, Talk, Talk -- and Read
Childhood should be a never-ending conversation. Talk to your baby, naming everything in her environment and making up simple stories at every opportunity. Read books -- babies love warm laps and the soothing sound of a parent's voice. Hide a toy and make a game of finding it with your toddler -- name the toy and ask if he can find it under the chair, on the sofa, behind the table. Create a library corner for your young bibliophile with plenty of comfy cushions and kid-friendly books. Chat about favorite toys, describing them and asking questions to elicit a response. Play pretend telephone call and encourage the baby orator to talk your ear off. Staple folded paper together and print a dictated story. Read it aloud to the author and let her illustrate the facing pages. Then she can "read" it back to you.
A Note About Music
Get musical with your baby Mozart. Sing simple rhyming songs and lullabies to infants and teach them to toddlers; sing-song and repetition improve memory. Turn household items into cardboard cylinder drums, bean-filled plastic egg shakers and wooden spoon clackers for a rhythm band. Play classical music and children's folk songs in the nursery. A study at University of California Irvine shows that Mozart really does improve the capability for spatial-temporal reasoning -- abstract thinking. But even more significant is the brain boost kids get from learning to play an instrument. Between one to five years of early childhood musical training improves listening skill and complex audio processing in adults, according to a 2012 Northwestern University study. Make music family fun by learning an instrument together. Methods like Suzuki training use this mom-and-me technique for children as young as 3.
Blocks, Shapes, Geometry
Play with blocks. Designate an area for serious block building to teach a young child order and challenge a variety of motor and cognitive skills. Picking up, holding and placing blocks all help to develop pincer movement for future writing, grasping, spatial sense, hand-eye coordination, pattern-creating and decision-making. Building a structure leads to problem solving, strategizing, selecting aesthetically pleasing shapes and colors, and enhanced imaginative play. Blocks concretize concepts of geometry and physics. Get down on the floor and discover the relaxing properties of playing with blocks yourself. Add small wooden animals, people, cars and trucks to a blocks village. Lay out streets and towns and name them. Look for safe blocks made from tree branches or inset with plexiglass colors. Older children may enjoy blocks that create Mayan temples, the Parthenon or Gothic cathedrals.
- University of Georgia: Better Brains for Babies
- Harvard University Center on the Developing Child: Young Children Develop in an Environment of Relationships
- North Dakota State University Extension: Keys to Enhancing Brain Development in Young Children
- Today at University of California Irvine: UC Irvine Study Shows that Exposure to Music Enhances Early Childhood Development of Brain
- Northwestern University: Little Music Training Goes a Long Way
- Princeton University: The Future of Children: Journal Issue: Caring for Infants and Toddlers: The Growth of the Brain
- Learning Materials Workshop: Arcobaleno Suggestions for Use
- National Association for the Education of Young Children: Blocks As a Tool for Learning: A Historical and Contemporary Perspective
- Jupiterimages/Pixland/Getty Images