Advice Column, Toddler, Toptots

Making sense of the world

A toddler’s day to day job is to play and not to be learning the ABC’s and doing math.  Many parents today lose sight of the goal of being a child. That goal is to explore the world around them and make sense of it.

Creating a sensory rich environment for your toddler will help them strengthen their bodies and their brains. Mature thinking and learning are based on neural pathways that develop as a child masters physical coordination, balance and skilled movement.  Yet many parents view “child play” as an outdated activity.  We live in a digital age – let them master computers, electronic games so they may conquer the universe!  How wrong they are! 

We learn by taking in information via our senses, process through that information and then act on the information that we have received in.  The most important aspect of the learning process is the ability to store the information that we have learned and retrieve it when necessary.  This is referred to as memory.  As a child learns new things through his sensory system, a connection is made in the brain.  When these sensory experiences are repeated over and over again, the connections in the brain become stronger until they are imprinted in the child’s memory.

Experience is learning in a child.  The more he is exposed to and allowed to discover, the more “brain power” he is developing.  Therefore it is imperative to enrich a child’s brain with as much experience as possible during the developmental stages.  

We need to feed our children’s brains.  Talking, singing and interacting with our children is important in building connections in the brain that a child needs to develop their communication skills.  Hugging and showing love and affection helps to develop emotions.  Touch floods the brain with feel good hormones which enable the child to develop feelings of love and empathy towards others.  Continual movement and interactive play time helps make their little bodies strong, so that muscle strength, coordination and balance develops and strengthens.  Movement is important in developing the senses which the brain relies upon to increase its power.  The more a child moves, the more neural connections are made within the brain and the cleverer the child becomes.  Every child needs exposure to different stimuli in order to grow and develop physically and mentally in a healthy way.

What we need to do as parents is to focus on developing and maintaining a balanced sensory diet for our children. As they develop and grow we need to think about incorporating sensory experiences in to their day to day life.  We need to get our children back to the games we played, back to exploring a three dimensional world where they get full of mud and run and jump in puddles.  Have you taken the time to see the scientist come alive in your toddler?  Watch the botanist, the entomologist and the geologist in your child as he explores the garden on a sunny day. At the beach he becomes an oceanographer watching and learning.

This natural instinct to discover and go on adventures often doesn’t last past the toddler years. Once formal education begins the hands on approach is often replaced by hands off. So how do we keep the scientist in your toddler motivated to keep on discovering new and wonderful things? Start at home with simple things.

Teach them to classify. How are things the same? How are they different? Look at everyday items with new eyes. Look at the fruit bowl. Which fruit can I eat just like this and which ones do I have to peel?  

Collect leaves and look at them closely. Some are big and some are small.  Some have many veins and some only a few.  If you have earthworms in the garden dig some up and have a closer look at them. Plant a small vegetable patch or herb garden. You only need a very small patch for your toddler to keep control of. If using herbs involve him in cutting them when you need them for cooking.

Collect some balls and have your child sort them from smallest to largest. Once he has the hang of this let him sort other items around the home from largest to smallest.  Look at heavy and light. Let him experience heavy by filling a soft drink bottle with water.  Have one that’s empty so he can experience the feeling of lightness. Fill and empty containers, collect things that sink and float.  Make ice together and watch it melt on a sunny day. Get into the habit of looking through the window every morning and comment on the weather. Become weather savvy – it will help your toddler become more sensible when dressing and it’s something that’s done every day at preschool.

Remember that free unstructured play is important for your child’s development.  Don’t always gravitate to electronic media, we have a world out there waiting to be discovered.

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