By Kathy A. Schaeffer
At what stage is it "too early" to start teaching a child? The answer, as many parents have discovered, is that there is no point at which it is too early. Learning activities to do with babies and toddlers are only limited to the imagination of the parent. There are five areas of learning and each of them can be geared toward babies. The areas of learning are cognitive, emotional, language, social, and physical.
The first suggestion that most parents and educators will mention is the importance of reading to children, yes, even the very youngest children. In the past decade or so, more and more mothers-to-be have decided to read to her baby even before the birth. The implication is that the baby can hear voices, so why not let him or her hear mom's voice calmly reading a story written specifically for children with its often rhythmic lines? Granted, reading the phone book or the classified section of the newspaper may offer the same calming effect for the baby, but why not read an fitting story in order to feel closer to the unborn child?
When the baby is old enough to actually look at the book and be interested in the pictures, point out various things in the photos and name the items. Still later, such as when the child is at the toddler stage and talking, try leaving end words off of sentences from favorite books and allow the child to fill in the word. You can also pick out some easy words to point out for word recognition for toddlers. Taking it a step further and writing the same words onto cards for another recognition game is a good idea.
Many parents also insist on introducing babies and toddlers to various genres of music. An activity such as listening to music also covers the social area of learning if the whole family or some older siblings are involved. That applies to the reading time, too. Perhaps the family members would enjoy taking turns reading to the baby or toddler and that would give the baby valuable social and bonding time with family members. Don't forget to invite grandparents to share in some of these activities.
You may be surprised at a very young baby starting to "coo" along when someone is singing, so your music education "lesson plans" need to include singing as well as simply listening to different kinds of music. If you wish to expand this further, you'd be amazed at how many objects around the house can be turned into "instruments" for the budding musician that lives inside of most toddlers. Don't let your (or the child's!) imagine stop with something like a wooden spoon and cooking pot.
The emotional area of learning is self explanatory. Teach the very young that they matter and that they are an important part of the family, church, playgroup, and later, the school community. Be careful that you don't say hurtful things thinking that it won't wound self esteem in a child as young a toddler. Words said in anger or without thinking can indeed injure the spirit of the very young, and an unfortunate side effect is that emotional scars remain with the child for his or her whole life in many cases. Even the youngest of babies can hear changes in voice tone or inflection and pick up on tension.
One excellent way to help your baby with the learning process and particularly the language area is to talk to the child from the moment he or she is born. During your daily activities, tell the baby what you are doing and even point out certain objects if you want to. If you are naming items of interest, repeat the name of it more than once. It will seem as if the baby doesn't understand or isn't paying attention but this, according to medical professionals, is what actually helps to form language skills.
When a baby is old enough for teaching things in the cognitive area of learning, the ideas for activities and how to help with the learning process are endless. This includes things like memory games, simple counting games and number recognition ("will you bring me three spoons, Mary?"), and other games that teach words, colors, shapes, and so on.
What are some other ways in which parents can provide a head start for babies and toddlers when it comes to learning new and exciting things? An added perk to doing this, according to research, seems to be that children who are taught to enjoy books and learning very early in life are more likely to succeed in school. The love of books and learning new things is truly something that continues for a lifetime.
Many companies that are connected with educational products are now developing and offering numerous series and individual learning DVDs and videos. If you take time to research what is available (online resources are a great way to do this) you will find that there are videos that are made for all age groups of children, even the very youngest. Choose age appropriate materials that will help to teach some of the things that you find important for the baby or toddler to learn. This would also apply to some of the programming that public television offers.
Games are great when it comes to learning tools. You may want to ask an older sibling or a friend's child to help think of some age appropriate games. It may be as simple as asking a toddler to "please fold the yellow wash cloth" when you are doing laundry. For younger babies, be sure to name objects that you are showing the baby.
Don't forget the games and songs that have withstood the test of time such as the ABC Song or Six Little Ducks. Draw six ducks to count with the toddler before singing the song. Old McDonald is a great way to teach animal sounds. Don't be afraid to compose a few songs of your own that will help with color or shape recognition, or anything else you wish to teach.
Babies are very curious about everything that goes on around them. You can greatly expand the universe that surrounds your young son or daughter by just remembering to interact with the baby as often as you possibly can. Ask other family members to do the same. The only thing to remember by way of caution, however, is that pushing is never good. A baby and toddler will learn things at a speed which is comfortable to the baby. There is never a valid reason to push beyond their limit or try to force them to learn more than they are ready to absorb at any given moment.