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Play developmental games with your baby

You are laying the foundation for your child’s lifelong learning from the first day you walk in the front door with him in your arms. You don’t need to hold up flash cards or enroll him in toddler reading classes, though. The best ways of preparing your child for college (okay — let’s start with preschool) fit into your regular routine and enrich his life and yours in numerous ways.

Mother with Laughing Baby

Knock, knock! Who’s there?

Humor engages an infant’s attention, and she is most likely to learn when she is alert and focused on someone with whom she has a close emotional bond. Make silly, repetitious sounds or motions, imitate the family pet, or put on a funny hat-your antics will get baby’s attention, leading her to focus on your face and voice. Once you have her attention, she is soaking up information.

A child’s sense of humor can be engaged in several ways:

Through tactile (lifting baby above your head or bouncing her on your knee), auditory (silly laughing or animal sounds), or visual (putting a shoe on your head) jokes. Even young infants can see the humor in incongruity, such as wearing a shoe on your head instead of your foot, and this type of joke becomes funnier to them as they make advances in cognitive development.

Many infants begin to make jokes on their own shortly after their first birthdays. Tickling her tummy lightly, I asked my 13-month-old niece, Angie, where she got her belly button. She gave me a sly look and said “Wal-Mart.” She is still the family joker.

Value added: Humor is an important way of showing affection and strengthening the parent-child attachment. Indeed, laughter is an important means of communication between parents and infants.

The Itsy-Bitsy Spider…

The parenting rage of the 1990s claimed that exposure to Mozart would render our babies little geniuses, improving their math, reading and spatial skills performance. Although scientists now tell us that many of the early studies may have over-emphasized the short-term effects of listening to music, there is reason to believe that music — especially musical training and performance — can enhance many aspects of children’s lives.

For example, premature infants experience benefits in health, mood, and test performance due to listening to music.

Music for babies

You don’t have to be Pavarotti to begin teaching your baby music. Sing to him (he won’t criticize your voice!), playing tapes or compact discs and dancing with him in your arms. Kindermusik offers classes for infants and young children that let them participate in making joyful music-and provide great opportunities for parents and babies to have fun together while they’re learning.

When our son showed great interest in the musical instruments at a concert, we bought him a set with a plastic trumpet, clarinet, and flute. He loved making his own music as I danced or marched to his “melodies.” “Performing” on a toy drum or xylophone can help develop your child’s interest in music.

Value added: Music is a universal evoker of emotion. It can energize you when you’re tired, calm you when you’re stressed, or make you smile when you’re down. Try playing Prokofiev’s “Peter the Wolf” and see if you and baby aren’t both smiling, or watch Disney’s “Fantasia” video with baby and notice his concentration.

Fuzzy bears, sandpaper and wooden spoons

When a baby is born, his most developed sense — and thus the way he takes in the greatest amount of information about his world — is his sense of touch. Show him the objects listed above and he won’t realize how different they are, but let him feel of each, and he will prefer the fuzzy bear.

Harry Harlow’s early experiments with infant rhesus monkeys demonstrated that infants will prefer a soft cloth “mother” with no food to a wire “mother” with food, and extensions of his research show that touch is essential not only to healthy emotional development, but even to survival for infants of all mammals. But did you also know that touch contributes to cognitive development?

As baby’s brain develops in the first year, he is busily growing synapses among the billions of neurons. Those synapses, which are what allows the brain to function, grow from experience. Brain imagery has shown that exposure to new toys causes baby’s brain to light up with activity — and it is touch that allows the newborn to experience those toys.

So go ahead, give your baby information — get him to touch your satin gown, his sibling’s silly putty, the nubby carpet, the Lambs’ Ears in your garden. Just be careful — his most sensitive touch receptors are in his mouth, so that’s where all of those things will go as soon as his muscles will cooperate.

Value added: Extensive research shows that human touch is soothing to persons of any age, and even that massage can improve the health of babies who are premature or ill. Stroking, kissing and lightly touching (don’t tickle!) your infant enhances his emotional health as well.

Time for our walk!

Daily routines and rituals help baby regulate his emotions and behavior, preparing him for preschool, college and employment! Children learn to work within structure successfully by entraining to family routines. Then, in preschool, he does not find it so difficult to move from story time to nap time to snack time — and then to manage his research papers and lab sessions in college.

Value added: Introducing exercise while baby is still in the stroller may create a healthful lifetime habit with pleasant associations.

What kind of bug is that?

Does baby see a new kind of bug in the garden or point to the stars? Are there big thunderheads forming? Do her eyes light up when she sees a dog? The web sites of most colleges and universities have fascinating information about virtually everything, many of them slanted toward young children with colorful graphics and interactive activities.

Public libraries have special displays for children about a variety of topics. The American Library Association website maintains a list of fun and informative web sites for children. When you seek out information, you are showing him that learning is fun!

By the way, don’t wait to tell Baby about dinosaurs and the theory of relativity until he is talking. By that time, he has understood what you’re saying for a long time. Even before he knows what each word means, he understands your enthusiasm, and the words come gradually.

Value added: You can learn a lot about a lot of things! Many of our family’s activities when my son was a preschooler taught us more about pterodactyls than we even wanted to know.

Hooray for the home team!

On vacation at the beach? Visit a college campus when you can for special events such as sports and concerts. Drive to a nearby college campus for an inexpensive cafeteria meal and buy a souvenir that can be displayed in baby’s room. Our son loves T-shirts, and we have always made a point of collecting them from colleges in the cities we visit.

We’ve had many conversations about why we went to college, what we learned and how much fun college can be– all based on those T-shirt souvenirs.

Visiting colleges not only provides the opportunity to talk about college, but it helps children feel comfortable on a college campus. If your child does not live near a college or university, such visits may provide her only opportunity to become familiar with such environments.

Value added: Colleges and universities frequently have free or very inexpensive museums, concerts and recitals, and exhibits on art, science, and many other topics.

Your homework assignment is…

Take a continuing education course or a Saturday workshop or a tai chi class. Show your child from the beginning that learning is fun and that it never has to end. In this family, we never stop learning!

Value added: There is no place better than a continuing education or community class to make new friends who share your interests.

Watching Mr Potato Head

A potato in a glass of water provides the opportunity for a child to watch and talk about the process of nature. What are roots? How do they grow in water? You can talk not just about potatoes, but about vegetables (they don’t just come from the supermarket!) and plants in general (why does the potato need to be in the sun?). See Colorado State University’s website for some other wonderful gardening activities for families with young children.

Value added: Making such discussions a part of fun family activities is a great way to talk about the importance of respecting and conserving our planet’s natural resources. This would be a good time to read one of the many books for children on conservation-and don’t worry if the book is a little beyond baby’s comprehension. That will come.

A very good thing…

Contrasting bright colors and decorations draw baby’s attention and may enhance ability to focus. Varying her mobiles, toys, curtains and other items may even stimulate learning. One scientific study found that varying these items in one-year-olds’ environments was associated with their saying new words!

Value added: You may want to decorate around holidays, family birthdays and other events, or religious symbols that are important to your family. Each time you hang a new picture or bring out a new toy you have an opportunity to tell baby stories about those topics and provide new information that is being soaked up.

What do you think about that?

Talking with baby is still the best way to stimulate his cognitive development. Notice I said “talking with baby” rather than “talking to baby”? If you want baby to learn the nuances of language and to develop his vocabulary, go beyond giving instructions (“now wipe your hands”) or making simple declarative statements (“that’s a doggie”). Hold a conversation. “Look at the clouds! I love the rain. Do you think it’s going to rain?” Even before baby’s expressive language allows her to participate fully in a conversation, her receptive language is up and running, and she is learning the give-and-take of conversation.

Child development researchers have found by studying families in their own homes that there is tremendous variability in how much parents talk to their children. In fact, they found that the variation in children’s intelligence was accounted for largely by the amount of time parents invest in their children and the active interest they show in what their children have to say.

Value added: Anything you do that communicates to baby that you care about her thoughts and feelings contributes to a warmer, closer relationship and a secure attachment. Additional value: Young children have fascinating, imaginative ideas. You’ll be amazed what you will learn.

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