"I love your list of ideas. Sounds like a wonderful environment to grow up in! I nanny for a 14 month old, and would love to know how you set up a similar learning-rich environment for your younger son."
Well, Caitlin, I'd love to answer that with my own ideas, and hopefully readers will share some of their own as well!
Many of the preschooler ideas hold true for younger (and older!) ages. Reading is at the top of that list. Babies and toddlers do well with short stories and engaging illustrations. This is not a time to be concerned about reading through a book front-to-back, but rather to go at the child's pace - linger on each page, describe the scene, point out objects, and stop when the child loses interest. Let them see you read for enjoyment, too!
Narrate your life. With my little ones, there is a constant stream of narration as we go about our day. This narration should continue as the child grows, with increasingly detailed descriptions and complex information given. Narration is the ideal introduction to object identification, colours, shapes, math, science, everything.
"That is a lovely red block you have. And here's a bigger one! Let's stack them - you put yours on top of mine. You did it! I'm going to put this blue one on top now. Now there are two blocks! Oh look! You bumped it with your foot and it fell down! What a loud noise it made!"
"Mommy's cooking supper right now. I'm slicing the green zucchini with my sharp knife. All done! Now I'm slicing the orange carrots. Let's put them in the pot! I'm going to clean up my mess now. I'm putting the peelings in our compost. Alright, time to add the tomatoes!"
This constant narration helps the child both to develop and enrich vocabulary and to increase their knowledge of the world around them.
Spend Time Outdoors
Again, this mimics the suggestion for the preschooler (and older) crowd. Time spent outdoors has a wealth of benefits, including (but definitely not limited to!) fine motor development, gross motor development, knowledge enrichment, sensory experience, imagination growth, and health benefits (physical, mental, and emotional). Just being outside exploring nature - grass, dirt, bugs, sticks, rocks, the works - will do much for a child's growth and development.
An excellent resource on this topic is Last Child in the Woods: Saving our children from nature-deficit disorder by Richard Louv. Another more practical resource is I Love Dirt!: 52 activities to help you and your kids discover the wonders of nature by Jennifer Ward.
Toddlers tend to have two common first words: "Mama" and "no". The latter is something that age group hears a lot. "No, don't touch that...no, that's not for baby...no, don't climb on that...no, don't go over there." No, no, no.
Sometimes a no is necessary, but the more we limit our no's and encourage our children to explore freely, the more opportunities they have to learn about the world around them. Even where redirection is needed, seek ways to incorporate a yes into your words: "Yes, you can climb over here...yes, you can jump on this instead...yes, you can press the buttons on your toy rather than the television." Recognize the intent behind the action and seek to affirm that by providing an acceptable alternative. There will be more than enough natural opportunities for your child to learn the concept of no without having to be told no at every turn. Encourage them to see, smell, taste, touch, and hear!
Free exploration can be either aided or discouraged by the child's surroundings. Keep off-limit areas to a minimum in order to provide the greatest number of learning experiences for your baby or toddler. When our older son was that age, these off-limit areas included the gaming system, the cat litter, and our textbooks. For our younger son (new house, new setup), they include the fireplace, the cat food, and Mommy's laptop. We reserve the bottom of our bookshelves for children's books, keep in-reach things either child-friendly or wedged in tight enough that they can't be removed, and keep harsh chemicals not only out of reach, but out of our home altogether.
I also put a lock on the toilet when they get to that age, not for safety reasons but because, well, some messes just aren't worth having to clean up!
Go About Your Day
Do the things you need to do - but include your child in them. It takes longer, yes. They're not really "helping", no. But they love to be included at this age. This practical life experience sets up good habits to be carried into the future while providing them with great learning opportunities in the meantime.
As you go about your day, draw your toddler alongside you. Hand them wet clothes to throw into the dryer. Have them move dry clothes from the dryer to the laundry basket. Let them fold facecloths, match socks, and assist in putting their clothes away. Let them splash in a sink of water with a cloth and some cups while you take care of the dirty dishes. Have them put away the utensils and their dishes. Include them in your dinner preparations. Hand them a cloth and a spray bottle of water while you're cleaning.
For the younger ones, a sling or other baby carrier is a great way to include them as you go about your day. Babywearing has numerous benefits ranging from convenience to physical and emotional health.
The majority of a child's mental and physical development at this stage happens through play. Play provides gross motor development, fine motor development, sensory experience, cognitive development, attention regulation, creativity and imagination growth, abstract thinking, and problem-solving opportunities.
Provide a rich variety of open-ended toys: blocks, Duplo, balls of varying sizes and weights, and toys for playing pretend. Puzzles, stacking rings, nesting cups, bead mazes, and shape sorters are all excellent for developing problem-solving skills. Sensory play can include sand, containers of rice or beans, textured beanbags, a sink full of water, or a bowl full of dishsoap bubbles.
Musical play is excellent as well. Sing songs as you go about your day. Play a variety of background music. Provide access to simple musical instruments such as shakers, tambourines, and drums.
We try to avoid branded toys in our home. Some Cars and Thomas vehicles have managed to work their way in, but for the most part we've been able to keep the toys generic and open-ended.
In the same vein and for a number of reasons, we have no television in our home and only occasionally watch a DVD on our computer. The AAP discourages television viewing for children under two years old. Turning off the television can do wonders for a child's brain development and imagination.
It's so cliché to say, but these years really do pass by quickly. Enjoy your child. Enjoy their snuggles and grins and first words and joyous discoveries. They will never be this age again.
What suggestions do you have for providing the baby and toddler crowd with a learning-rich environment?