5 Ways to Stimulate Early Learning in Your Toddler

By Nancy Ripton
From the print edition, March 2012

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Illustration by Ekaterina Trukhan

Should you enrol your toddler in preschool before he’s potty trained? It’s a question many parents are pondering now that research from Early Years Study 3—the third such review of early childhood education in Canada since 1999—indicates children as young as two can benefit from preschool programming. The study isn’t suggesting you seat your toddler at a desk but rather that you encourage play-based programming that will stimulate your child and better prepare him for school—and life.

The study found that children who have poor verbal skills at ages two and three (no matter what the socioeconomic circumstance) have trouble coping in kindergarten, are less likely to graduate from high school, are more likely to fail in personal relationships and have difficulties finding steady work. “There are a number of genetic markers that can be turned on, for good or bad, as a result of a child’s early environment,” says Kerry McCuaig, Atkinson Policy Fellow, Early Childhood Policy at the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education at the University of Toronto and co-author of the study. “A good learning program can help compensate children for poor home environments and supplement the care and nurturing provided in good homes.”

While there are many government-sponsored early learning centres with free drop-in parent and child programs, you can also encourage learning at home. Here are five great—and easy—ways to help your child get the best start possible.

1. Learn from Daily Activities
Children are hands-on learners, so include them in your daily routines. “Narrate what is happening and tell them about the sequence of events,” says McCuaig. “My 18-month-old comes with me on all my errands,” says Beth-Anne Jones, a Toronto-based mom of three. “I build learning into the errands, such as counting out three boxes of pasta as I put them in my cart.”

2. Make Time for Reading
“The power of reading to your child is enormous,” says Cindy Brandon, a professor and coordinator of the community and child studies foundation program at Centennial College in Toronto. “Some studies suggest a 40-percent increase in vocabulary when children are read to.” Brandon notes reading also allows an intimate connection with the parent, which your toddler loves. Early Years Study 3 recommends engaging in literacy practices to help maximize your toddler’s vocabulary—such as engaging your toddler in conversation and reading to him for 20 minutes each day. (It doesn’t need to be restricted to bedtime.) Try simple books that explore things your child experiences in everyday life. You may find your child asking for the same book over and over. Toddlers love the repetition, notes Brandon. “Being able to predict what will happen next gives them control over their world. This is a building block of self-esteem.”

3. Get to the Point
Around age one, children will start pointing to things. “It’s your job to give the object a name and/or bring it to your child,” says Brandon. Pointing is your child’s way of communicating, and parents need to be responsive in order to encourage social interaction and help with language development.

4. Encourage Free Play
“Create a safe environment, with lots of textures, colours and smells, for your child to explore,” says McCuaig. But don’t expect your child to stay with one activity for long. “Toddlers have a very short attention span and like to try a lot of different things,” says Brandon. Pay attention to what interests your child and use that interest as a teachable moment.

5. Sing a Tune
Music teaches children about rhythm and repetition, which can stimulate development in a host of areas, especially with language and math skills. “Children can learn the alphabet by having fun singing the alphabet song or learn math by engaging with the parent in the rhyme ‘One, two, buckle my shoe,’” notes Brandon. Your child can benefit from anything with a beat, but simple rhyming songs with a predictable sequence are best. “Your child gains confidence by knowing what’s coming and learning to predict the words and join in and use the words himself,” says Brandon.

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