Infant-development experts believe that the first years of a child's life are a prime time for learning, but sometimes it may be hard to think of new ways to stimulate your baby. Let these fun -- and scientific -- activities will inspire you.
Stimulate Baby's Vision
1. Make eye contact. Take advantage of those brief moments when your newborn's eyes are open, and look right into them. Infants recognize faces early on -- and yours is the most important! Each time he stares at you, he's building his memory.
2. Stick out your tongue. Studies show that newborns as young as 2 days old can imitate simple facial movements -- it's a sign of very early problem solving.
3. Let him reflect. Have your baby stare at himself in the mirror. At first, he may think he's just eyeing another cute kid, but he'll love making the "other" baby wave his arms and smile.
4. Make a difference. Hold up two pictures about 8 to 12 inches away from your baby's face. They should be similar but have one small difference (perhaps a tree is in one but not the other). Even a young infant will look back and forth and figure out the distinguishing features, which sets the stage for letter recognition and reading later on.
Chat Her Up, Make Her Laugh
5. Blab away. All you may get is a blank look, but leave short pauses where your baby would speak. Soon she'll catch on to the rhythm of conversation and start filling in the blanks.
6. Go gaga. Your baby really tunes in to your silly cooing and high-pitched baby talk.
7. Sing a song. Learn as many tunes as you can, or make up your own verses ("This is the way we change your diaper, change your diaper, change your diaper . . . "). Play Bach, the Beatles, or Britney Spears. Some research suggests that learning the rhythms of music is linked to learning math.
8. Clue him in. When you announce, "I'm going to turn on the light now" before flipping the switch, you're teaching cause and effect.
9. Tickle her toes. In fact, tickle her all over. Laughter is the first step in developing a sense of humor. And playing games like "This little piggy" (finish by tickling her under the chin) or "I'm gonna get you" teaches your child to anticipate events.
10. Be a funny face. Puff up your cheeks, and have your toddler touch your nose. When she does, poof! Have her pull your ear, and then stick out your tongue. Make a funny noise when she pats your head. Keep to the same routine three or four times, then change the rules to keep her guessing.
11. Joke around. Point to a photo of Uncle Frank, and call him "Mommy." Then tell your child that you were being silly and laugh at your "joke" to build her budding sense of humor.
Bond Every Chance You Get
12. Breast-feed, if possible. And do it for as long as you can. It's a fact that schoolkids who were breast-fed as infants have higher IQs. Plus, nursing is a great time to bond with your infant by singing, talking, or simply stroking that delicious baby hair.
13. Make the most of diaper time. Use moments on the changing pad to teach body parts or pieces of clothing. Narrate to help your baby learn to anticipate routines.
14. Turn off the tube. Your baby's brain needs one-on-one interaction that no TV show, no matter how educational, can provide.
15. Don't forget to give it a rest. Spend a few minutes each day simply sitting on the floor with your baby -- no music, bright lights, or playful tricks. Let him explore, and see where he takes you.
16. Be a playground. Lie down on the floor, and let your baby climb and crawl all over you. It's cheaper than a jungle gym and lots more fun! You'll help boost her coordination and problem-solving skills.
17. Build an obstacle course. Boost motor skills by placing sofa cushions, pillows, boxes, or toys on the floor and then showing your baby how to crawl over, under, and around the items.
18. Shake it up, baby. Teach her to twist and shout, do the funky chicken, or twirl like a ballerina.
19. Play "follow the leader." Crawl through the house, varying your speed. Stop at interesting places to play.
20. Now follow his lead. As your toddler gets older, he'll stretch his creativity to see if you really will do everything he does, like make silly noises, crawl backward, or laugh.
Explore New Surroundings
21. Share the view. Take your baby on walks in a front carrier, sling, or backpack, and narrate what you see -- "That's a little dog" or "Look at those big trees!" or "Did you hear that fire engine?" -- to give your baby endless vocabulary-building opportunities.
22. Go shopping. When you need a break from your song and dance, visit the supermarket. The faces, sounds, and colors there provide perfect baby entertainment.
23. Change the scenery. Switch your toddler's high chair to the other side of the table. You'll challenge his memory of where things are placed at meals.
Play and Be Silly
24. Surprise her. Every now and then, delight your baby by gently blowing on her face, arms, or tummy. Make a pattern out of your breaths, and watch her react and anticipate.
25. Practice three-card monte. Grab a few empty plastic food containers, and hide one of your baby's small toys under one. Shuffle the containers, and let him find the prize.
26. Play peekaboo. Your hide-and-seek antics do more than bring on the giggles. Your baby learns that objects can disappear and then come back.
27. Pick it up. Even if it seems like your baby repeatedly drops toys off her high chair just to drive you nuts, go fetch. She's learning and testing the laws of gravity. Give her several pieces of wadded-up paper or some tennis balls, put an open bucket under her seat, and let her take aim!
28. Grab a tissue or two. If your baby loves pulling tissues out of the box, let him! For a few cents, you've got sensory playthings that he can crumple or smooth out. Hide small toys under them, and thrill your tot when you "find" them again.
29. Get touchy-feely. Keep a box of different-textured fabrics: silk, terrycloth, wool, and linen. Gently rub the cloths on your baby's cheek, feet, and tummy, describing the way each feels.
30. Feel your way. Walk around the house with your babe in arms, and touch his hand to the cool window, some soft laundry, a smooth plant leaf, and other safe objects, labeling items as you go.
31. Let your child play with her food. When she's ready, serve foods that vary in texture -- including cooked peas, cereal, pasta, or chunks of cantaloupe. She'll get to practice her pincer grasp and explore her senses.
Teach Language and Counting
32. Take a cue from Sesame Street. Dedicate each week to a letter of the alphabet. For instance, read books that start with A, eat A foods, cut up snacks into that shape, and write the letter on your sidewalk with chalk.
33. Count everything. Count how many blocks your toddler can stack. Or the number of steps in your house. Or his fingers and toes. Make a habit of counting out loud, and soon he'll join in.
34. Read books. Again and again! Scientists have found that babies as young as 8 months can learn to recognize the sequence of words in a story when it's read 2 or 3 times in a row -- this is believed to help them learn language.
35. Tell tall tales. Choose her favorite story -- replace the main character with her name to make it fun.
36. Go to the library. Take advantage of storytime, puppet shows, and rows and rows of books.
Baby Sign Language: Alphabet
37. Make a family album. Include photographs of relatives near and far, and flip through it often to build your child's memories. When Grandma calls, show him her picture as he listens on the phone.
38. Create a zoo book. On your next visit, take photos of favorite animals to include in an album. Later, "read" it together, naming all the familiar creatures or adding animal sounds and stories.
39. Put her in the spotlight. Together, watch old home videos of your baby enjoying her first bath, learning to roll over, playing with Grandpa . . . Narrate the story to build language and memory.
40. Make a mug-shot memory game. Take close-up pictures of all the impor- tant people in your child's life, get double prints -- and you've got a set of matching cards. Lay them faceup on the floor, and help her find the two that are alike. As she gets older, you can alter the memory game by starting with the photos facedown.
Tips for Toddlers
41. Make more out of storytime. Point out little details in the pictures, and ask your toddler questions, ranging from the abstract ("Why do you think he doesn't want to try green eggs and ham?") to the concrete ("Have you ever seen a white dog?").
42. Play in the rain. Jump in puddles. Sit in wet grass together. It's a fun, albeit messy, way of learning about wet and dry.
43. Let him be the boss (sometimes). Build confidence by giving your toddler a choice between two items whenever possible: different-colored bowls at mealtime, for instance. He'll learn that his decisions count -- and get practice naming his colors.
44. Dress up. Let your toddler play with some of Dad's old shirts. Dig out old winter hats, scarves, or orphaned gloves. Put yourselves in pretend situations, and see where his creativity and imagination take you.
45. Play it again, Sam. Dig out the box of your toddler's old rattles and mirrored baby toys. You'll be amazed at the new ways he finds to play with them.
46. Talk feelings through. Cuddle up at bedtime, and ask your child what made him happy or sad that day. What made him angry -- or proud? You'll help him recall the day, understand the past tense, and label his emotions. This is an activity to keep up -- right until he heads off to college.
47. Hunt bugs. Look at pictures of harmless insects (ladybugs, crickets, butterflies) in a book or magazine, then go to the park to find some.
48. Wear rose-colored glasses. (Or yellow or blue.) Pick a color, and ask your toddler if he can spot it when you go on a walk or car ride together. Then let him pick a color for you to hunt.
49. Put your kid to work. Little tots can help sort laundry into darks and whites. Your child may even be able to pick out which clothes belong to her.
50. Speak volumes. Gather a few different-size cups or plastic containers, and let your child pour water from one to another at her next bath. Sometimes she'll pour too much, other times too little. Talk about which cups are bigger and which are smaller.
Copyright © Reprinted with permission from Parents magazine.
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