Cody, a busy 18-month-old, is playing with a toy when he accidentally drops it behind a shelf. He lets out a cry and bends down to examine the situation intently. You can practically see the gears turning in his brain! After a few moments, he spots a broom, picks it up, and uses it to poke at the toy. This is something he saw his mother do the other day. How exciting to see a toddler recall previous events and make a meaningful, if simple, plan of action! Toddlers are excellent imitators with expanding long-term memory banks. They mix and match bits of information from different observations and create their own complex actions.
Rapid Brain Development
Baby brains are beautifully set up to process input from the things they sense around them. When you cradle a contented newborn in your arms, hum a lullaby, and gently rock him, you are actually helping his neural systems to fire. Positive interactions, along with good nutrition and interesting stimulation, fuel the infant's impressive brain development.
Baby's brain develops very rapidly. A 3-month-old, for example, can figure out that kicking a certain toy will make a special sound. He craves novelty and is quick to explore a new toy or object. He is busy noticing and processing his world — using his senses to collect information for his "database." As each baby is a unique being, each brain is unique, seeking and needing different input as it develops. One baby will focus on a toy that makes crinkly sounds, while another seeks soft furry textures. Cherish these individual differences. They make a baby the special person he is.
Areas of Growth
Different areas of the brain develop at different times. At around 8 months, for instance, a growth spurt in the pre-frontal cortex of the brain increases the baby's conscious memory. She begins to understand object permanence — an object continues to exist although it cannot be seen, touched, or heard. If a toy is hidden under a scarf with just part of it showing, a baby recognizes the toy because she takes that partial image and completes it in her mind. She will look for a toy that drops out of sight. Stranger anxiety, or a heightened awareness of unfamiliar people, might develop. Babies now combine immediate sensations with mental images, or conscious memories, to understand how the world works. The foundation for abstract thinking is being laid.
Babies are active participants in their learning and need to explore a wide variety of objects. Nurturing relationships support these explorations. Objects are more clearly remembered and understood. A 12-month-old, for instance, might bang a spoon on the table, mouth it, and then put it into a nearby bowl or jar. She is learning that objects, like a spoon and bowl, have functions that go together.
Moving Toward Abstract Thinking
Twenty-month-old Kathryn picks up a baby doll brush and gently brushes her own hair. Her mother offers a doll: "This doll sure needs her hair brushed!" and models brushing movements with her hands. Kathryn smiles as she tenderly brushes the doll's hair. She initially brushed her own hair because that had been her experience. Brushing the doll's hair required a step away from a reenactment of a physical experience to more abstract thinking. The toy becomes a symbol when it is used on the doll. With help, Kathryn is learning to become the "director" of her symbolic play. As her language develops, she will start to make the dolls "talk" to one another.
Abstract concepts are best learned during daily routines. For example, you can talk with a toddler about who has more or fewer raisins to eat. More important, offer a relaxed and interesting environment with time for children to select their own activities. This way their interaction with the environment has a positive effect on how their brains develop and form connections.
What You Can Do
- Create a basket of safe objects with a variety of textures, colors, and weights for babies to explore.
- Explain to toddlers how objects work. Talk about how you squeeze the bottle to get the ketchup out! This helps them learn about the function of objects.
- Encourage toddlers to "work" along with you on daily tasks such as sweeping or wiping tables. This gives them building blocks for their own thinking.