While no one would argue that infants and toddlers should be engaged in academic learning per se, everyday experiences will indeed lay the foundation for future academic skills in even young children. In fact, babies enter the world primed to learn! For example, consider how much they sleep. Much of babies’ sleep time is rapid eye movement (REM), or dream sleep. For adults, REM sleep is important for consolidating learning, and it is likely that it serves the same function in babies.
Scientists debate exactly how much “knowledge” we are born with. However, recent findings suggest that even very young babies can intuit small amounts. Research that studies babies’ looking time and habituation exercises (where longer looking times indicate surprise) demonstrates that babies seem to understand the concept of 1, then 2, and then 3, including recognizing when small amounts are added behind screens.
You can support your child’s developing math skills by counting objects in everyday life, such as when you are building a tower or laying out crackers for a snack. Point to each item as you count it, to support your child’s understanding of 1-1 correspondence (knowing that each item is a discrete unit). Help your child count 1-by-1 in this “clean up” activity: http://www.mothergoose.com/Games/myLady.htm. For some visual math, take a look at this site, where you can catch fireflies while doing basic addition: http://avenscorner.com/fireflies.aspx. Use mathematical terms like “one more” or “none left” at mealtime. Sing counting songs like 5 Green and Speckled Frogs or 10 In the Bed. Act songs out to further enhance learning! Count the number of eggs your child can spot in these fun, online egg “hunts” (don’t forget to zoom in!). http://www.gigapan.org/gigapans/3695/ and http://www.gigapan.org/gigapans/3696/. Come back to the same image more than once and see what your child remembers! This is a great visual discrimination activity as well.
In terms of what other skills children develop over the first three years, it seems that language and cognition often go hand-in-hand. That is, babies will begin to point to items and name them at the same time that they begin to separate objects into categories. At 15 months, for instance, babies will take a small collection and sort one item within it (e.g., find all the cars, leaving the horses scattered about). At 18 months, they will sort multiple items (e.g. make a pile of cars and a pile of horses). This occurs at the same time that most children’s vocabulary explodes, allowing them to verbally sort more items into categories as well. In this way, the skills and experiences in one area of development impact and extend the skills and experiences in another area of development. To support your child’s categorization skills, try this online activity: http://www.scholastic.com/clifford/play/sortitout/sortitout.htm.
Over the course of the first 36 months, babies and toddlers will learn to match shapes, colors, and simple pictures of objects. They will learn to group or seriate objects (order along one dimension) according to specific characteristics such as shape, size, or color. Give your child objects with various dimensions and talk about how they might play with or organize them. Try this online activity and see if they can determine which size bird laid which size egg: http://www.meddybemps.com/easter/eggsizes.html. As your child learns to assemble puzzles, use this as an opportunity to enhance problem solving skills. Layer on language while also signing about the puzzle pieces makes it a language learning activity as well! To enhance your child’s vocabulary and learn to sort by criteria, try this activity: http://pbskids.org/clifford/games/measuring_up.html. Before your child is three, he will likely be able to assemble 3- and 4-piece puzzles and problem solve how to approach more complex puzzles.
Before turning 3, most children understand the concept of larger, smaller, and longer, can point to body parts when asked, and repeat 2-3 numbers in a row. Some know their basic colors, their alphabet, and can count to 5 or 10 by rote. For a fun ABC interactive, check out http://www.mothergoose.com/Games/baby_tap_type.htm. They understand the basics of cause-and-effect (e.g., if they run on a slippery surface, they may fall; if they drop their spoon, you will pick it up), as well as how to respond to requests with basic prepositions such as putting something in or taking it out. Some understand opposites such as wet and dry or soft and hard. All of these concepts can be actively explored in simple games and experiences. For example, using funnels, tubing, and pouring cups, children can explore size, shape, weight, and volume with water or sand (while supervised). Doing so allows them to engage in problem solving, hypothesis formation, and experimentation. Don’t forget to talk to your child about how things work (e.g., squeeze the salad dressing to make it come out) so that they can continue to learn about object functions.