From ages zero to five a child’s brain forms connections more rapidly than it ever will again, with 90% of our brain being fully developed by the age of five. Parents can do a lot to ensure their baby’s brain is receiving all the input it needs in order to begin developing those strong connections from birth. The best way for your child to learn is through play. The more you play, talk, interact with and stimulate your child through their senses, the quicker they develop their language, motor, executive functioning, and self-help skills.
Here are some easy ways you can help your baby increase their language through their daily activities:
Narrate What is Happening Around Them
This may feel unnatural at first, but it will soon become second nature. As your baby sits along side you while you cook, run errands, finish-up work, drive, or anything else you might be doing throughout your day, narrate aloud for them what you are doing and why: “Mommy is cutting up some delicious veggies for your dinner tonight. I’m cutting some orange carrots and green zucchini. They’re delicious. You love carrots!” The more words they hear, the earlier your child begins to understand, respond, and, ultimately, speak. Be sure to narrate what your child is doing as well. Hearing the words for their actions as they are doing them helps your child connect the actions to the words and expand their vocabulary: “I see you are playing with your fuzzy bear. Do you love the fuzzy bear? Doesn’t he feel so soft and cuddly?” Try to address all their senses, describing everything they see, hear, feel, smell, or taste.
Stimulate Their Senses
Allow your child to explore their senses, while you verbalize what they are experiencing. Talk about the different sensations as they are experiencing it. : “What does it feel like? Is it soft? Squishy? Smooth? Rough? Spiky? Hard?” When they are holding a toy, ask them about how that toy feels, looks, or sounds. When they are eating, ask them to describe what they are smelling and tasting. Words have very little meaning to children until they are able to experience their meanings with their senses. For example, a child won’t fully understand what soft means without experiencing something that is soft. This sounds simple enough, but as parents it is important to take advantage of all the learning opportunities that arise naturally during the child’s daily activities.
Introducing Shapes and Colors
Shapes and colors can be introduced through everyday activities and games. For example, getting dressed is a great opportunity to talk about the colors in your child’s clothes. “Let’s put on your green shirt today. Look how pretty the green is! It also has a red dinosaur on the front, you love dinosaurs!” Talking about the colors they are seeing allows them to begin connecting the colors and their names. Point out colors in nature, their food, their toys, and anywhere else you can. Playtime is another great chance to explore shapes and colors. You can begin by talking about the colors of the blocks while they are building with them. Soon after, you can move into explaining the shapes of the blocks they are holding. Outline the shape with your finger as you tell them which shape it is: “Look you are holding a square block. Can you put it on top of the other square block?” Once the child gains some experience with shapes and colors you can become more interactive, asking them to pass you a blue block or hand you a red triangle.
Singing and Reading
Think about how many songs you know the lyrics to. How many of those songs have you not heard in years and yet can recall all the words as soon as they come on the radio? Music is a wonderfully fun way for children to pick up language and practice using the sounds they already know. Play music for them in the background while they play, take a bath, sit in the car, during meals, or any time you feel like adding a little extra to what they are working on. Sing familiar songs with them. Repetition will allow them to learn and recall the words and hand movements to a song. Be interactive. Grab some of your child’s toy animals and act out Old Macdonald Had a Farm as you sing together.
Reading together is one of the most important things you can do with your child. Studies show that children learn to read earlier and faster when they are read to and when they observe their parents reading. Children love story time, and as a preschool teacher, story time was one of my favorites as well. The best part of story time is that you don’t always need to have a book in front of you. My students’ favorite stories were always the ones I made up on the spot at the lunch table or during rest time when I wasn’t able to use a book. Bath time, meals, and car rides are also great opportunities to tell your children stories from your imagination. If they are old enough, ask them to participate—maybe allow them to name the main character or choose what the story will be about. The more involved they get, the more fun and interactive it will be for you both.
Children also need to view print as often as possible, in order to develop the connection between print and language. Even at an early age, children can develop important pre-reading skills, including page turning, text direction, and identifying the front and back of a book. You can help your child develop these skills while reading to them by pointing along and allowing them to turn the pages for you. Following the words with your finger as you read also helps your child recognize the connection between the words on the page and the story you are telling them. Once they are familiar with a story, allow them to “read” or retell the story to you by looking at the pictures and narrating what they recall. With younger children you can point to objects in the pictures and have them tell you what they see. Ask a local librarian to suggest great children’s books and read, read, read as much as you can.
Soon your child will be talking a mile a minute and you may long for the time when you had a moment of peace and quiet! Be sure not to pressure their language development. When your child makes a mistake, try to avoid correcting them or telling them to “say it this way.” This can impede your child’s language development. Instead simply repeat what they said back to them correctly. Over time, your child will adopt the correct pronunciation or sentence structures on their own. Most importantly, be sure to have fun and make learning language natural, interactive, and part of your child’s daily routines.