A lot of parents aim to stimulate their children early in order to promote good attention and learning abilities. This is a wonderful thing to do, but can sometimes lead to overstimulation of the child’s mind. Overstimulation can lead to moody behaviour, disobedience and difficulty in communication as they move toward kindergarten years. The one thing I tell new mothers is to feed your child’s mind, just as you would their appetite. You don’t want to over or under feed your baby and, as such, the same goes with their minds.
A healthy baby is going to have natural inquisitive behaviour about the world around them. Healthy learning development involves them being able to explore their environment, be it in their play pen or a secure room. They need lots of different shapes, colours, textures and (where parents can tolerate it!) sounds to explore. This should be done on a regular basis every day for a few hours and be supervised and structured by a parent or care-giver. If over-done, babies and toddlers can become disinterested in their surroundings because they literally have satiated their curiosity to soon. This is when you see them become moody and frustrated even at play time. It is therefore important that there is structured play time (several hours a day) with a person interacting with them to guide their learning vs. unstructured play time where a new toy, gadget, book or activity is introduced and the child interacts with it at their leisure to enjoy and work out its place in their world.
As children become older, parents tend to feel they need to engage them in lots of physical and mental activities. To some extent this is very good for them however, we can over do this. For example, if you think of yourself working 5 days a week and then engaging in extra-curricula activities of a night time after work, and hobbies or other social events on weekends, you would be exhausted because you have no time for yourself. In other words you have no time just to have ‘free play’. Children need unstructured play time and down time, just as adults do. This stimulates them to entertain themselves as well as to learn tolerance for not expecting structured learning or play throughout their childhood and later teenage years.
To summarise: to promote healthy learning behaviour and good attention in your babies and toddlers, consider doing the following on a day-to-day basis:
Have structured play time with your child where you read, engage in story telling with their toys, or simply provide basic puzzle solving games with blocks, shapes, colours and numbers. Do this for an hour or so every day.
Allow your child to continue unstructured play after the structured play time, or after they’ve have had a rest or a feed.
Try and change their play environment each week. For example, have them play in their room for a few days, then change their play environment to the living room for the next couple of days.
Always talk with your child during play. Even though they will not respond verbally, they will listen during play and retain phrases you say in relation to tasks you work on together.
Reward your children with lots of praise and cuddles each time they work out a puzzle or complete a game with you.
As your child gets older, remember to allow them to have ‘them’ time, where no activities or social events are planned for them during one or two days of the week. It is important they learn to engage their own intellect and accept that learning is not always externally regulated by parents and teachers.
Dr Andrew Campbell is a Child, Adolescent and Family Psychologist at the Brain and Mind Research Institute – Clinical Centre, located in Camperdown, Sydney.
Dr Campbell provides assessment and treatment for a wide a range of childhood behavioural development, mental health and learning disorders and accepts referrals from all GPs.
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