Monday, June 30th, 2014
What are the parenting principles for raising happy, well-adjusted children? Here the focus is on cultivating the innate need to explore.
Right from birth, babies are explorers. They come equipped with the skills to scan their world for interesting information and process it in a meaningful way. Stick your tongue out at a newborn … and they may stick their tongue out too. Watch as babies orient to your voice when you are not right in front of them. Stroke their cheek and observe the rooting reflex. All this happens very early, before they can get around on their own.
The principle of exploration should be cultivated at every developmental stage. You won’t be doing damage to a baby’s brain by letting them look at a screen – but they will explore much more if you interact with them because they will be scanning your face for all kinds of signals that are constantly changing. Well before they walk they are equipped to use their developing motor skills to not only move around their world but to get to things they want to touch – that’s why crawling is so important for cognitive development. Walking babies and toddlers are moving about to explore. While it’s up to you to give them safe boundaries and set parameters, understand that they are trying to soak up information – so help them do that as safely as possible, and as much as possible.
What about the toddler years? Maybe it’s a little annoying, but banging on a pot in the kitchen is the stuff of cognitive exploration. They don’t need anything fancy – they can do plenty with an empty box, or a blank piece of paper and crayons. Arts and crafts should be paramount, as all that fine motor manipulation is not only important in its own right, but in fact promotes higher order cognitive processes. Take them with you and treat your outings as chances for them to explore. It’s not just the grocery store – it’s a large structure with all kinds of sensory stimulation and people to observe. Share their wonder and encourage them to take it all in.
As they get older, give them lots of opportunities to try lots of things. Parenting culture favors overspecialization at younger and younger ages. Who knows what a kid will want to do when they are older? Give them a chance to try out a lot of things – in part to send the message that they should feel free to explore and figure out what they want to do more of when they are of age. No matter what age, they should always have a sense of wonder about the world.
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Sunday, June 22nd, 2014
Parents get very excited when a baby takes those first steps. As they should. It’s quite the milestone. But all the fuss about walking can diminish the very real benefits that come from babies moving themselves around their world before they can walk.
There are, in fact, many developmental benefits of crawling, including the obvious all-around opportunities for motor development. Developmentalists detail all kinds of advantages including optimizing sensory processing and integration. Relatedly, there are cognitive benefits that should not be overlooked. When babies are crawling, it gives them a chance to explore their environment and platforms them to manipulate objects. This kind of controlled and active discovery is the stuff of brain development. In the laboratory setting, babies who have more experience crawling are more apt to explore and extract information from objects – and are more advanced at later ages in terms of cognitive development. Babies need that time to take in and integrate their sensory information, and use all their senses (touching is especially important) to formulate the abstract principles that fuel cognitive development. For example, babies who have experience manipulating three-dimensional objects will be more likely to “know” that three dimensions exist when tested in the laboratory setting – their eye movements will continuing scanning images for “hidden” dimensionality in objects that other babies will miss.
All of this may sound rather “academic,” but the intention here is deliberate. It’s very easy to be thrilled seeing a baby walk. It’s not so obvious that a crawling baby is doing all kinds of highly sophisticated cognitive processing (which is more detectable in the laboratory than every day life). What’s the point of all this? Simply put – don’t be in a rush to get your baby to walk. Don’t go out of your way to promote walking when they should be crawling. Babies walk when they are ready to walk. Some do it earlier, some do it later. It doesn’t really matter. What matters is going out of your way to let your baby crawl, and to be able to find safe and interesting objects to explore. There’s a reason babies crawl before they can walk.
Keep track of Baby’s milestones in one place.
Baby Crawling via Shutterstock.com
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Wednesday, April 30th, 2014
While we know that arts and crafts can promote cognitive development in childhood, researchers have begun to specify in more detail the specific advantages for both toddlers and school-age kids. I’ve recently articulated 3 specific cognitive benefits of arts and crafts in childhood (based on a survey of child development experts that I will be discussing at the Mom 2.0 Summit) in a blog post for Parenting.com:
- Promoting fine motor skills that contribute to academic readiness
- Fostering critical visual processing skills (e.g., pattern recognition) that are fundamental to cognitive development in the early years
- Encouraging the early application of emerging executive functioning skills
You can learn more about the research and uncover some crafting ideas here.
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Sunday, December 30th, 2012
Two areas of research caught my attention this year:
Tips For Parents: We all know that it’s good for parents to play with their kids, and read to them. But new studies continue to point out specific methods that parents can use – like specific ways to talk to your toddler when reading to them, and ways to use your voice and fingers to promote reading skills. Other studies highlighted how basic kid activities – like drawing – are connected (in perhaps surprising ways) to later school achievement. While some of these findings may seem intuitive, parents of toddlers are flooded with all kinds of suggestions (including costly ones) on how to give their kids an academic “edge”. It’s very nice to see research demonstrate that parents can use some simple strategies that are fun (and cost nothing) which result in real promotion of their kids cognitive development – and also reinforce how beneficial it is for parents and kids to spend time together in an “old-fashioned” way.
Getting Kids Enough Play Time: In addition to parent-child interaction, kids need to play – and by play, I mean the running around kind. It’s good for their bodies, and it is directly and indirectly good for their cognitive development (both in the short and long term). Yet new studies continue to reveal that a number of barriers are reducing how much play kids get. The take-home message for parents is quite clear: make sure your kids have plenty of opportunities to play, and do what you can to ensure that this is the case in preschool and beyond.
Time For Review via Shutterstock.com
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Monday, April 30th, 2012
Unfortunately some babies, toddlers, and children are exposed to maltreatment and trauma – they can be witnesses to physical and emotional abuse, sexual abuse, and partner violence, and also experience it directly. Prior research has shown that such exposure may have lasting negative effects on cognitive development. The lead author of a key new study – Dr. Michelle Bosquet Enlow of Children’s Hospital Boston – took the time to expand on her current findings and the implications for intervention. Below are her responses to specific questions I posed.
Could you briefly give a description of what you examined in your research?
Our research specifically studied child exposure to maltreatment (the large majority, though not all, at the hands of the mother) and domestic violence against the mother. These kinds of trauma exposures may require additional considerations compared to other types of traumas that do not involve the parent (for example, being involved in a serious car accident, death of a non-parental family member). For example, when the caregiver is the perpetrator of the trauma, the child may need to be removed from the caregiver’s custody and some of the answers below may not be as applicable.
Do we know yet what the mechanism might be that affects cognitive/brain development? How does trauma affect the developing brain especially early in life?
There are many ways that trauma may affect the developing brain. Certain types of trauma, such as physical abuse or neglect, may cause direct injury to the brain, for example through injury to the head or malnutrition. We also know that when humans face a stressor, especially an extreme stressor like a trauma, the body prepares to react to the stressor. Chronic or severe stressors can cause changes in how the body secretes and processes a number of hormones that affect how the brain functions. These effects may be particularly strong in early life when the brain is developing so rapidly. Any changes to the brain during this critical time may affect how the brain is organized, and therefore have lifelong consequences. Also, infants and young children have fewer coping resources to manage stress, given their immaturity and dependence on their caregivers. We know that caregivers have a critical role in fostering children’s cognitive development. Sensitive, warm, consistent, empathic caregiving is key. Finally, for many children, trauma exposure can lead to emotional difficulties, like depression and posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD). This is true even for very young children. These difficulties can interfere with learning new skills. For example, a child with PTSD may be preoccupied by disturbing memories of the trauma and have difficulty sitting still and paying attention. This can make it difficult to pick up new cognitive skills.
If a baby/toddler is exposed, what can be done with respect to intervention? What could a parent or caretaker do to minimize the effects?
Caregivers are absolutely essential to children’s recovery after a trauma. First, caregivers need to make sure that they are taking proper care of themselves so that they can be most helpful to their child. Sometimes, a caregiver and child suffer the same trauma (for example, being in a car accident together). Just knowing that your child has suffered a trauma can be very upsetting to the caregiver. This may cause feelings of guilt, helplessness, depression, and anxiety and difficulties with sleep, appetite, and concentration. Caregivers should seek out help for themselves if they feel that they are having symptoms that are getting in the way of their ability to function or care for their child. They may talk to their primary care physician or seek out a counselor. They should make sure to get enough sleep and eat right and exercise if possible.
The other really important step caregivers can take is to help the child to feel safe again. Maintaining routines, such as the same bedtime rituals every night, is very important. Keep in mind that the child’s behaviors may change—for example, the child may become more clingy, have difficulty separating from the caregiver, have nightmares or resist going to bed, or not want to eat or want to eat a lot. The caregiver should do her best to be patient and remember that these are normal reactions. The child is not trying to manipulate anyone. If possible, the caregiver should try to minimize separations, at least temporarily. If a separation is necessary, the child should be left with someone she knows and trusts. A familiar object to keep while the caregiver is gone, like a photograph of the caregiver, may help. The child may need extra hugs and lap time to feel reassured. If the caregiver feels the need to talk about the trauma with someone, she should make sure that the child cannot overhear the conversation. However, if the child wants to talk about the trauma, she should be allowed to do so. She may need to talk through what happened and get reassurances that she is now safe. If the caregiver has concerns about the child, she should talk with the child’s pediatrician. There are counselors who treat traumatized children, even very young children. These counselors can be very helpful in giving caregivers advice about ways to help their child. For example, we treat traumatized children and their families in the Psychosocial Treatment Clinic in the Outpatient Psychiatry Service at Children’s Hospital Boston.
Any suggestions to help parents in a compromising situation seek out help to prevent exposing their baby to trauma?
If parents are feeling stressed, they should seek out help for themselves, for example by calling a parenting helpline or by talking with their primary care physician or a counselor or friends and family. Physicians and counselors should be able to help parents find resources if needed to get out of a domestic violence situation or to get help if there is child abuse or neglect. The National Child Traumatic Stress Network has helpful information regarding child trauma, including information for parents and caregivers. Their website is www.nctsnet.org<http://www.nctsnet.org>.
Image depicting overcoming trauma via therapy courtesy of Shutterstock.com
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