The arts have a key role in play, learning, imagination, and feeling.

Visual arts: Between 18 and 36 months, most little ones have magic marker mania, because kids are driven to make images. Give your toddler plenty of markers or crayons and paper and let him scribble away. Let him do it his way. Allow him to turn the scribble into whatever. Don't mess with it, impose structure on it, or repeatedly ask what it is. All these intrusions run the risk of teaching him he is supposed to be doing something other than what he is attempting to do. His ideas are better than yours precisely because they are his, not yours.

It's an important development stage. Here, the physical process of tuning fine-motor skills becomes a learning experience about texture, shapes, color, etc. This starts a process which eventually involves symbolic use and manipulation of images. It just looks like mud wrestling.

As they paint, scribble, and knead clay or work with other materials, children chat, improve eye-hand coordination, and may become involved in group efforts. Make sure your child helps you clean up after he is through. That's a good lesson in shared work, accomplishment, and restoring order.

Music and dance: Children have an innate appetite for music. In the musical world, feelings come together with play, movement, and memory in a way that is not ultimately dependent on language. And that is precisely why it is so indispensable to young children of every culture and class.

All young children, even those with only minimal hearing, have a powerful, almost riveting affinity for music. Research has shown that the fetus responds to musical cues from the middle trimester onward and never stops attending to it afterward, and infants are the same. By toddlerhood, play with music is so complex and rich, it probably teaches more economically than any formal kind of instruction. The neurobiological processes underlying the appreciation of music-related play and interaction involve the brain pathways for:

• Memory
• Hearing
• Balance
• Motor control
• Hormonal secretion
• Cognition
• Emotion

Talk about a big bang for the buck! What else in our world can stir such a response across generations and cultures? I can't think of a thing.

From Me, Myself and I: How Children Build Their Sense of Self — 18 to 36 Months by Kyle D. Pruett, M.D. Available wherever books are sold. Copyright © 1999 by Goddard Press, Inc.