Your Baby Can Read! says the ad. Wow, sounds impressive. In fact, the babies in the commercial, who are eagerly reading three-syllable words from flash cards, look younger than your toddler. Is your child already falling behind?
If this is a time of rapid brain development, should you be doing more to encourage your toddler to learn?
Surprise! Just by being a loving parent, you’re probably doing all you need to help your toddler learn. “Parents’ relationships with their children — at all ages — are critical in promoting learning,” says Marilyn Chapman, director of the Institute for Early Childhood Education and Research at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver. “Learning is emotional as much as it is cognitive, and emotions help memories ‘stick.’ We want children not only to learn, but to feel good about doing it and develop a positive, healthy identity.”
But the “teach your baby to read” kits and similar programs — such as DVDs promising to develop baby’s right and left brain hemispheres — get a thumbs-down from Chapman. “There is no value in these programs, and there is potential for harm,” she says. In fact, these products are falling under scrutiny. The Walt Disney Company was forced to drop its claims that its Baby Einstein products were educational after a complaint was filed with the US Federal Trade Commission.
Chapman is especially concerned about the early reading kits. She explains that children need to learn that reading and writing are forms of communication, and that reading can be fun and can help us learn things we want to know. Children taught to read too early often become turned off reading because the fun of it has been stamped out, she finds.
So skip the intensive programs and try these steps to create an environment that promotes toddler learning:
• Remember that the best toys encourage children to use their imagination. Block and building toys, dress-up clothes and props, objects for sorting and stacking, household objects (empty cereal boxes) and craft materials can all inspire imaginative play.
• Outdoor play is critical, says Chapman. Toddlers need the chance to burn off energy, develop large muscle control, coordination and balance. Nature walks are another great learning opportunity, where children can collect leaves and turn over rocks to see the insects, and you can talk to them about their discoveries.
• Accept some messiness and imperfections when toddlers are drawing, painting or doing crafts.
• Involve kids in household activities, such as cooking — let them help you to measure, pour and stir.
• Recognize that play is the best way for toddlers to learn. Formal instruction and programs don’t work for kids this age — they need to explore, discover and experiment. That’s true even when kids are in daycare or preschool environments; while their days may be more structured, play should still be the priority.
And not only should the environment be physically safe, it should be emotionally safe, Chapman says. That means the toddler feels secure, loved and accepted, even when she counts “one, two, five” or calls the yellow ball “blue” (even though she knew it was yellow yesterday).
“Enjoy your child’s learning process, and celebrate his attempts, even if the results aren’t perfect,” adds Chapman. “Children are little for such a short time — we don’t need to rush them.”
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