Have flashcards at home for your little one? Consider ditching them. Casey Lew-Williams, Ph.D., co-director of the Baby Lab at Princeton University, says playing with mom or dad is much better for baby’s brain development.
“If a child has access to some sticks and some rocks and an adult to play with, great things can be achieved. The cognitive processes required for imaginary play on the playground are more demanding than sitting there looking at flash cards,” he writes for the World Economic Forum.
Learning in babies is reliant on two factors, according to Lew-Williams. The first is the ability to detect and remember patterns. To learn a language, for example, babies need to recognize the pattern in everyday speech. Then, slowly as they grow, they use their learnings to speak the language themselves.
When babies are born into nurturing environments and have access to quality education and nutrition, they are “more likely to grow and develop in ways that maximize the potential of [their] brain,” says Lew-Williams. “If you are born into more deprived circumstances, this learning process can happen differently or more slowly.”
Talking to babies and using as many different words as possible is essential to their development -- not just in language but reading, math, and even social skills, he adds. So use every opportunity you can to chat with your baby and introduce new words.
The second important factor in learning is a baby’s natural interest in other people. “The moment they are born, they see their parents or other adults doing things like moving their mouth and eyes, making sounds, and offering them comfort and food. And they get hooked. They attach,” says Lew-Williams, who has a doctorate in developmental psychology from Stanford University.
This attachment and their remarkable ability to detect patterns in everyday life allow babies to develop their brains and learn better. “They find structure in it, they learn, and they gradually become ever-better learners.”
So, what can we do as parents to support our children’s brain development? Spend some time bonding and playing with your little one. Even simple activities like singing, cuddling, talking and rolling a ball across the floor already do a lot of good. (Find more play ideas for babies here.) Name body parts while bathing him! “It's about showing the baby how fun it is to be with another person, and how communicating with others is rewarding,” says Lew-Williams.
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Following this line of thinking, try your best to avoid passive activities that don’t require engagement from your little one, like watching TV and videos on a device, he adds. Most recent screen-time guidelines from the American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that children under 18 months should not be given screens. For babies between 18 to 24 months, screens are allowed provided it’s tuned to high-quality shows, like Sesame Street. Watch with your child too, so you can talk and react to what you’re watching together.
The first 1,000 days are crucial, Lew-Williams says. “Healthy neural development is sculpted by high-quality interactions and play. And infancy is the time to help the best connections form.”