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Smarter summer: It's never too early to learn

For decades, doctors told parents that their newborns were like blank slates. Today, in the book The Scientist in the Crib, a baby's mind is described as "the most powerful learning machine in the universe." Most education experts agree.

Just what is best?

But this head-turning new model of early childhood often leaves parents confused about what's best for their very young child. Many parents I speak with wonder if they should buy the latest learning tools that promise to make their infants into Superbabies or to turn their toddlers and preschoolers into little Einsteins.

The good news is you don't need expensive toys, videos, flashcards or CDs to build your baby's brain. A caring parent or caregiver can find many "teachable moments" in the everyday play of babies, toddlers and preschoolers. And summer offers the perfect time to begin.

By learning through play, young children gain skills that help them get ready for school. This can be especially important for five-year-olds in the summer before kindergarten.

Eight simple steps for a super smart summer
Talking: Simply talking to young children stimulates brain activity. Choose summer themes to tell stories, sing songs, recite nursery rhymes, and describe the world. Name things and encourage your child's efforts to talk.

Reading: The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that parents begin reading aloud to babies at six months old. Summer is a great time to start a daily reading ritual. Frequent reading opens windows on the world, feeds children's imaginations, and teaches them to associate books with your love. These experiences motivate young children to become independent readers.

Libraries: Books for babies and children are available free at your local library. Librarians often offer special summer story times and other activities for preschool children. Studies show that the best readers come from homes with lots of books. Get your child his or her own library card and make visiting the library a lifelong habit.

TV: The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends waiting until your child is at least two years old before exposure to TV, and then limiting viewing to an hour or less per day. Choose only nonviolent, educational shows and avoid commercials. Watch with your child to ask and answer questions that extend learning.

Writing: Provide a well-lit table or desk and a variety of papers and writing tools. Encourage the child, without pressure for the writing to "look like" something. Refrigerator magnets can help teach the shapes of the alphabet. Most preschoolers enjoy learning to write their own names.

Math: Learning the names and symbols of numerals is a big early childhood accomplishment. Toddlers and preschoolers can play simple counting games and grasp concepts like more and less, heavy and light, long and short. Learning about squares, circles, and rectangles is a step toward geometry. Develop pre-math skills by sorting laundry, counting toys or baking brownies.

Science: Engage your child's natural curiosity. Babies are fascinated by soap bubbles. Toddlers can watch an ant hill and collect rocks. Preschoolers can learn about watering plants and washing hands. All young children enjoy learning about animals. Arts and music: Music, painting, dance and dramatic play help build language, coordination, listening, spatial and other skills. Proudly display your child's creations.

Loving parents can raise bright kids without high-priced gimmicks. By finding "smart moments" every day this summer, and throughout the year, you will give your child the most valuable of gifts: the love of learning.

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