The informal education that happens before your child steps one cute, little foot into school is crucial toward developing a healthy and happy child. These tips and strategies will provide knowledge and techniques you can use to create the ultimate learning environment for your child. From YOU: Raising Your Child by Drs. Michael F. Roizen and Mehmet Oz
Emphasize Play, Not Success. While it's true that kids follow the same basic learning patterns, it's also true that there are many nuances. Some kids learn better by hearing and seeing the information, while others learn by doing and practicing. No matter the method, what's really important is that you encourage your child to play with objects safely and explore the world around him. The point isn't to measure success or failure; it's to let him engage his intellectual curiosity. At this age (under five), that will create a stronger foundation for learning than drilling your youngster on any particular task.
Read It Loud and Proud. We can't say it often enough: Read aloud. Read aloud. Read aloud. Besides serving as wonderful one-on-one time, reading to your child will do amazing things for her future vocabulary. In fact, the vocab that a child has at the age of two is proportional to the number of words he's heard spoken to him before that time. Kids might not be able to respond verbally to you when they're little, but they're processing. Remember those neurons: With every sentence, you're building stronger language connections.
Say This, Not That. Sometimes it's easy to take the easy way out and say little or just use short phrases with kids, since they can't do much talking anyway. But everything you're saying helps their emotional development as well as their language development. Use these examples as guides for how to involve your child in your conversation:
Say "Do you think the doggie is hungry?"
Not "I'm going to feed the dog now."
Why: Questions initiate conversations and engage children with inflections in tone.
Say "Doesn't dirt look cool close up? Just try not to get any in your mouth, because it tastes yucky and can give you a tummy ache."
Not "If I have told you once, I've told you a thousand times not to eat dirt."
Why: Positive observations encourage curiosity; negative commands stifle it. Also, explaining the consequences of an action gives a child the knowledge she needs to make the correct choice on her own in the future.
Make Convo. The best way to talk to your child is by pretending that she can converse. Do you need a nap? It's been a long day hasn't it? These yams are pretty nasty looking, aren't they? Talk to her as if she were filling in the gaps. That will help her recognize language and word patterns that she'll need and use soon enough. Speak slowly and in short phrases, using gestures and facial expressions to reinforce the meaning of your words.
Drop the Background Noise. Having your favorite TV show host on in the background might be nice ("Say hi to Dr. Oz, bubby!"). But this kind of white noise makes it difficult for kids to distinguish between the sounds they need to know and the sounds they don't. So keep the TV off and make sure that the responsibility of filling the silence is fulfilled by the three-dimensional people in the room, not the two-dimensional ones. Even better, don't turn on the TV at all when your child is around, and don't even think about putting one in his room. Studies show that kids with TVs in their bedrooms tend to be more overweight and don't perform as well in school. Bottom line: TV can decrease brainpower.
Sign Up for Those Music Lessons. And not because you're trying to create the next Bono. The advantages of music lessons go way beyond learning to play a little Mozart (or Metallica). Kids who study a musical instrument for three years do better than non-musical kids with skills not associated with music -- such as verbal ability and, perhaps obviously, finger dexterity. Other research shows that music also improves overall memory. Fa la la la la, la la, la, la.
Do Art. One of the best ways to let your child's creative juices flow is to let her create all kinds of art, whether it's scribbling on a piece of paper or playing with paints and crayons. Besides allowing her to expand her imagination, this helps her develop those fine motor skills (holding a pencil or crayon, squeezing a bottle of glue). We suggest that you make art a regular part of your weekly routine, and try not to set too many rules (besides keeping the art on the paper, not the walls). The rug is going to be ruined by milk-soaked Rice Krispies anyway, so what's a little glue or paint to go with it? That way, your child will feel most free to express herself.
Show and Tell. Whenever you're out, be one of those pointer-outer parents. Point to things you see, hear, and smell; teach your child about the world. This applies wherever you are, whether it's in nature or at the mall. It's also really helpful to show your child how things change: Leaves change color, flowers bloom, batter turns into cookies, and so on.
Skip Disembodied Videos. There are a lot of baby videos on the market that purport to help turn your child into a genius. The problem is, though, that some research shows that kids who watch these videos may actually end up with a smaller vocabulary than those who don't watch them. What's wrong with them? While the videos may emphasize language-building skills, they use disembodied voices rather than visible speakers. Babies learn language not only through sounds but also by watching faces (kids on the autism spectrum tend to watch lips) and tracking how words begin and end. With just audio, the words sound more like gibberish than real language. And that's not even counting the point that a huge part of language development is the back-and-forth that happens during conversation, which is one of the reasons that even certain TV shows (the ones that encourage interaction, like Dora the Explorer) are better for brain development than some of these targeted videos.
Give Plenty of Tummy Time and Floor Time. When he's awake, that is. (Babies need to sleep on their sides or backs to decrease the risk of sudden infant death syndrome, or SIDS) The importance of tummy time is that it forces kids to work on the gross motor skills of lifting up the head and eventually rolling over. While you're at it, make sure that you reposition your baby regularly so that he learns to move his head in all different directions rather than, say, always looking to one side to see a favorite mobile, which can lead to a flat spot on one side of the head. To help correct such a spot, try moving the mobile to the other side for a bit and putting your baby in different spots in the crib, so he has to alternate where he's placing his head.* If the ground is free of (biting) dogs, cat dander, and dirt, then let your child explore the floor. That way, he can move around and learn to navigate all kinds of obstacles, like furniture and toys, which will also help him develop those gross motor skills. As he gets older, that should translate to time rolling a ball on the floor and doing all kinds of tumbling. [*Another option is using a foam triangle wedge (available in baby stores) to help prop and hold the baby in various positions.]
Make Junior a Genius. Okay, we're somewhat kidding here. The pushy-parent approach, more often than not, will backfire. Push a kid too hard, and he's going to find a way to push back one way or another. That said, it is interesting to note that the key element to attaining so‑called genius status is practice. Extraordinarily accomplished kids tend to spend thousands of hours on a particular task. But those hours spent practicing aren't mandated by parents; they're done because the child wants to do them. So your job isn't to lock your child in his bedroom with his violin and a kitchen timer; it's to expose him to many things, so he can choose what he likes and be internally motivated to keep wanting to do it. Focus on all of his strengths rather than trying to improve every little one of his weaknesses.
Add DHA. Remember that the most important component of brain is fat, which helps improve the insulation of those brain cells to strengthen the communication of information from one neuron to the next. Here's one case when you should support the presence of fat: healthy fat. Research shows that children whose diets are supplemented with adequate levels of DHA perform better on cognitive tests and even have a higher IQ. Some grandmoms got us our healthy fats via cod liver oil, but these days, we can offer more palatable options: namely, supplements. Our recommended dose for kids (there's no hard data in youngsters up to four years): 30 milligrams a day for every year out of the womb up until age twenty (i.e. 60 mg at age two, 90 at age three, to 600 at age twenty). You can break up the pills and pour the liquid in healthy drinks. [We like to recommend you get nutrients in foods, but salmon and trout are the only fish in America that consistently have DHA. So we get them from where the fish do -- algae, but from supplements.]
Slow It Down. Your baby's noggin motor is churning right from the start. It's just that it's not churning at high speed, but a slow, steady setting. So especially in the first year of life, take things slow. It's great to expose your child to stimulation, but there's no need to create a circuslike atmosphere. Talk slowly and repeat your words. You're carving a channel in the brain, and the best way to make sure it's deep and wide is to take your time. "Motherese," or that singsong voice in which Mommy repeats what Baby says or describes what's going on at the dinner table, actually augments learning. It's okay to do singsong; just use real words that are pronounced correctly.
ABOUT THE AUTHORS
Michael F. Roizen, M.D., is a four-time New York Times number one bestselling author, and is cofounder and originator of the very popular RealAge.com website. He is chief wellness officer and chair of the Wellness Institute of the Cleveland Clinic and chief medical consultant of The Doctor Oz Show. Mehmet Oz, M.D., is also a New York Times number one best-selling author and Emmy Award-winning host of The Dr. Oz Show. He is professor and vice chairman of surgery at New York Presbyterian Hospital/Columbia University Medical Center and the director of the Heart Institute. They are the authors of YOU: Raising Your Child (Copyright © 2010 by Michael F. Roizen, M.D., and Oz Works, LLC).