Did you know the first eight years of life can have an enormous impact on brain development? Read on for some tips on how you can nurture your child's developing brain and optimize a lifetime of learning.
Maximize Love, Minimize stress
Babies are constantly watching, listening and learning. They are tuned in to everything in their environment, even while they are still inside mom. High levels of maternal stress during pregnancy can lead to a higher risk of pre term birth, developmental delay and even future chronic health disorders like obesity and diabetes.After birth- growing up in a high stress, chaotic environment can actually alter neuronal architecture leading to decreased memory and decreased cognitive flexibility.
Not surprisingly, babies and young children learn best when they feel safe and loved by a calm, consistent caregiver. So give lots of cuddles and hugs, even if your "baby" is a confident 7 year old who doesn't seem to need it anymore. Nurture a calming home environment by keeping house rules clear and consequences consistent. Make an effort to not discipline while angry and remind yourself the goal is to teach, not punish. Make time for yourself and regular self care. Taking a break is not just good for stressed out parents, its important for your little one as well.
Talk, Read and Discuss
Young children's brains form approximately 700 synapses a minute in the first few years of life. Speaking to your baby fires up those important synapses in the area of the brain responsible for language. The more words they hear, the stronger those mental connections get. This process not only strengthens future language skills, it also improves a child's overall ability to learn.
Passive experiences through screen time will not stimulate the same neural response as an actual interaction. Indeed the American Academy of Pediatrics recommends no screen time at all for children under 2 years of age and less than 2 hours a day for older children. So turn off the TV, baby talk is done best when its one on one.
When your baby babbles make eye contact, listen and respond with similar sounds. Narrate your activities during the day, sing, play peek a boo, read picture books. Point out objects to reinforce the association between speech and meaning. As your child gets older,spend time reading books out loud and discussing them. Make comparisons to people and situations in real life. Label and identify facial expressions and emotions. Reviewing why characters behave the way they do in books, can help children develop their analytical skills and build emotional IQ. Ask them to imagine how they might respond in a similar situation and encourage them make up stories of their own.
Count, Group and Compare
Did you know that human babies, as well as a few other species, are born with mathematical abilities? In the animal kingdom, this innate number sense helps species better navigate their environment and compare the richness of various food sources. In humans, the numerical understanding of objects is built upon as a child grows and eventually develops into the uniquely human ability of performing symbolic math.
You can help this process along by introducing math vocabulary at an early age. Sing number songs. Count everyday objects like steps, fruit and toys. Sort and group them by color or size. (Our Arabic Alphabet puzzle is great for this.) Compare which group has more objects, which group is physically larger, or stack them and see which group is taller. Make associations between the word or symbolic number, for example the word or symbol 3, and counting three physical objects. Encourage your child to estimate between groupings ( which bowl do you think has more blueberries?). If your child is a bit older, involve them in measuring and pouring when you cook.
Encourage exploration through movement and play
Playtime is serious business. Did you know free play is so important to optimal child development that it has been recognized by the UN High Commission for human rights, as a basic right of every child? Unfortunately with our increasingly hectic lifestyles and society's ever sharpening focus on academic achievement, playtime is an endangered concept. As parents, we must fight to protect that time for our children. Play is literally the job of childhood and is arguably the single most important thing you can do on this list to foster brain development. When children play, they are actually hard at work exploring their environment. When they run, climb and jump, they are developing their gross motor skills, fine motor skills and spatial awareness. Playing games allows them to form hypothesis, test theories and learn the important skills of team work, sharing, problem solving, conflict resolution, self advocacy and cooperation. Child driven play allows your little one to practice decision making skills, develop new competencies and discover new areas of interest. When play is regulated by adults children miss out on some of the benefits of play, particularly the development of creativity, leadership and group skills. So step back and let your child lead the way.
Cultivate a growth mindset
A growth mindset is the belief that any goal is achievable as long as you put in the time and the hard work to achieve it. This is an approach to learning which embraces failure and persistence rather than innate talent.
A fixed mindset is the belief that intelligence itself is fixed. People are either good something or not good at something. Children with a fixed mindset are more likely to interpret difficulty as lack of capability or intelligence. Overtime, a fixed mindset can lead to less confidence and decreased motivation to try. ( ex : Mom I'm just no good at math). Research suggests that children who are praised for intelligence rather than effort are less likely to take on new challenges. Perhaps more disturbing, they are more likely to hide when they're struggling and lie about their mistakes.
You can cultivate a growth mindset by reminding your child that the brain is like a muscle. The more you practice, the stronger it will get. Train yourself to praise effort rather than intelligence or success. When your child does well without effort encourage them to take on a new challenge, rather than praise their cleverness. When they put in effort and fail, praise the hard work and encourage them to see what they can learn from it. ( "I loved seeing the effort you put into that assignment, lets see what we can learn from it for next time"). By giving your child permission to get it wrong, you take the anxiety out of learning. This will increase their resiliency in the face of failure as well as expand their willingness take on new challenges. When you catch your child being persistent at something, praise them for it before the result is achieved. Emphasize that failure is a learning opportunity on the way to the final outcome. Model this in your own life when you take a wrong turn or something doesn't go your way. Take the opportunity to show that its ok to fail as long as you keep trying your best.
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