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It may sometimes seem like your go-go-go toddler can't stop even for a moment, let alone take in more. But toddlers are primed to learn. Here are six surprisingly effective ways to enhance your child's experience and knowledge, one pint-size lesson at a time.
Talk up a storm
Most kids learn about one new word per week between 18 months and 2 years of age and can say about 50 to 100 words by age 2. Brain Rules for Baby editor Tracy Cutchlow says that the more you talk to your toddler, the more words she'll learn.
Experts recommend "narrating your day." That means telling your toddler what you're doing while you're doing it, says Cutchlow, and it's a great way to expose your toddler to a variety of new words all day long.
Now's the time to read more books. Feel free to have fun and use different voices for different characters in a book, too.
Do make sure your toddler's hearing a steady stream of language – but not from the television. The language on TV is too fast for toddlers to decipher for learning, and it's not interactive. While toddlers do need to hear people speaking, they also need human interaction to make the most of the experience.
By keeping up a constant conversational flow, using a diverse vocabulary, you're setting your child up for better reading, writing, and spelling skills down the road, Cutchlow says
Teach the ABCs of emotion
Developing emotional intelligence is important for your toddler's cognitive and social development, according to Ross Flom, an associate professor of psychology and neuroscience at Brigham Young University in Provo, Utah. And you can help your child learn to read emotional cues – a life skill that's involved in everything we do.
Say your child is playing in the sandbox when another child, unsteady on his feet, bumps into him. "Help your toddler see when things are an accident," Flom says, "so he doesn't harbor a grudge and think it's on purpose."
A simple, "uh, oh, that was an accident," for example, can frame the situation, helping your toddler identify what happened and understand it. Your child's response is important, he says, because kids who think something like this is done deliberately tend to do poorly academically, socially, and cognitively.
The same goes for positive emotions. For example, if your toddler shares something with another child, take a moment to point out the consequences of that simple behavior.
You can say something like, "See how you shared, see how happy it made her?" By helping your child connect the feeling to the action, you're building emotional intelligence that will serve your child for a lifetime.
Play it smart
"Mature dramatic play is a specific kind of play that focuses on impulse control and self-regulation," says Tracy Cutchlow, editor of Brain Rules for Baby. She suggests two games to try with your toddler that help kids learn and practice impulse control.
The first is about opposites. Take a set of simple pictures and show them one by one to your toddler. Suppose the first one is a picture of the sun. "When you show it to your child, get her to say 'night' instead of 'day,'" Cutchlow says (or moon instead of sun).
Not ready for such a verbal game? Try a rhythm game instead. "You pat the drum once," she says, "and your child is supposed to pat it twice."
In both games, the point is to get your toddler to stop, think for a moment, and override the response that comes first. These games are appropriate for children ages 3 and 4. "You can make games like this up," Cutchlow says.
Impulse control is linked to stronger math skills and is key to building executive function – the brain's ability to plan, set goals, and to stay on task. Executive function is a higher predictor of academic success than IQ.
Make a creative space
Want the best possible playroom for your toddler? Ditch the home design magazines and take a cue from developmental molecular biologist and Brain Rules for Baby author John Medina.
To foster your toddler's natural creativity, he says, create an environment that's imagination-friendly. That doesn't mean the latest and greatest toys – in fact, Medina says, an empty box and a couple of crayons may just be the best toys on earth. Instead, it means giving your child time and space to try new things.
You can also try using multiple stations to make a space that offers creative options. For example, there could be one for music, one for drawing and painting, another for blocks and construction toys, and still another for costumes – anything that encourages creativity.
Research shows that kids work harder and do better in school when parents praise their efforts instead of their intellect.
So, while you might really want to say, "My little cutie is so smart," what you really should say is, "Wow, you must've worked really hard." The focus is on what the child did to produce the work rather than the outcome, and it helps children associate hard work with success.
It works, says Cutchlow, because as kids get older, they'll have what's called a "growth mindset" (the belief that they can do more if they try) instead of a "fixed mindset" (the belief that what they can do is pre-determined by their innate abilities or IQ).
"More than 30 years of study show that children raised in growth mindset homes consistently outscore their fixed-mindset peers in academic achievement," he says. "Children with a growth mindset tend to have a refreshing attitude toward failure. They don't ruminate over their mistakes. They simply perceive errors as problems to be solved, and then go to work."
Point your finger
At about 9 months, children begin to follow your finger to figure out what you're pointing at, says BYU associate professor Ross Flom. Research shows that children learn language faster if you point to an object – like a truck – while saying the word. And by now, your toddler is probably really good at this game.
Having this shared interaction is called "joint attention." It means your child has the ability to communicate to you about something (and someone) outside the two of you. And once your child has this ability, Flom says, your communication can become more elaborate.
You can head to the zoo, for example, where you can both give your attention to an animal like a polar bear. "Point at it, talk about it, describe it," Flom says, to promote social, cognitive, and language development.