Your baby’s first few years are a journey of discovery, as his mind opens, his body becomes stronger and he grows to understand the world and his place in it. Everything presents a learning opportunity and, during the early years, it’s important that he is exposed to as many activities with developmental potential as possible.
The good news is that the best developmental activities for your child are the ones he encounters through play – all you have to do is give him access.
We spoke to an occupational therapist and an educational psychologist about the best brain- and body-boosting activities for one- to three-year-olds, to give you some easy-to-implement ideas.
Gross-motor skills development
“Children have become far too sedentary,” says Raeesa Bulbulia, a paediatric occupational therapist. “Find activities that encourage your child to be physically active, using his whole body in many different ways, including climbing, crawling, jumping and rolling.” She suggests creating an obstacle course in your lounge, garden or park, with hurdles for your child to jump over, roll under or crawl through. The more he tumbles, bashes and pulls and pushes things, the better.
Fine-motor skills development
This involves the activities that your child does with his fingers. Raeesa says that play dough is a great way to keep little fingers supple and strong. She also suggests engaging your toddler in day-to-day activities that require fine-motor coordination. “Let him open and close jars for you, screw the lid on and off the toothpaste, flip open the body wash, try to do up his jacket buttons and learn to pull up zips. Take the time to let him do these things for himself – even if it takes ages and he makes mistakes.”
Give your children a variety of different toys with different textures to play with. “Until he’s five, your child is still learning the sense of his body in space. Different sensory mediums build awareness of the body in space – giving it a better sense of what it is doing and how,” says Raeesa. “Children who haven’t played in sensory environments often struggle to focus and concentrate, and can’t cope with textured foods.” She suggests providing your toddler with play options other than toys – let him experiment with spaghetti, shaving cream, jelly and sand.
Language and hearing
The best way to promote language and hearing competence is to read to your child. Raeesa explains that you don’t have to wait until your child is old enough to speak or understand language. “You can start reading to him from the day he’s born.” Buy early-learning books with shapes and colours, and start pointing out objects to your child. As he gets older, you can graduate to picture and storybooks. But don’t simply read the words on the pages – make reading an interactive experience by asking questions like, “Where’s Jack?” or “Where’s the beanstalk?” or “What do you think is going to happen next?”
Social and emotional
“Between the ages of one and three, there are lots of changes in a child’s emotional development,” says Raeesa. “As toddlers mostly parallel play with other children of the same age – playing side by side rather than with each other – it’s a good idea to expose them to children of different ages, who will lead play and interact with them in new ways.” She suggests taking your child to shopping centres, parks or play dates to help him practise his social skills and learn the norms of what’s socially acceptable.
Beating the separation blues
Educational psychologist Melanie Hartgill says that babies have an “out of sight, out of mind” mentality. When you’re not there, your baby doesn’t think about you. Then at about six months, he will start to understand the permanence of objects and become upset when you leave the room. This “separation anxiety” can last well into the second year of life. To help your child understand that you exist when you are gone and will always come back, play games like peek-a-boo or an active version of hide-and-seek where you move around the room and pop out from behind objects, speaking the whole time, so your toddler learns that you are still there – even when he can’t see you.
Although your child may solve puzzles on your phone or tablet, it is important for visual processing and fine-motor coordination that he does real-world puzzles too. “He needs to learn to negotiate the physical aspects of putting a puzzle together – feeling the edges, trying from a slightly different angle to fit the pieces and responding to visual cues if his attempts aren’t working,” says Raeesa.
Like Raeesa, Melanie believes that today’s children are too sedentary and spend a lot of time in front of screens instead of using their minds and bodies in active play. As a result of this, she sees many children who aren’t coping with the demands of their early school careers and need intervention. Don’t try to force activities. “Just let your child play outdoors – with an age-appropriate level of supervision. Let him climb things, run around, swing, push, pull, drag and bang items. It’s good for his brain and body to have that kind of freedom,” she suggests.
Let them play alongside your work
Children like to learn by participating. Raeesa says that they love to feel like they are taking part in what you are doing. So when you are cooking, let your child bang pots together, pack his blocks into muffin trays or pour water from one measuring cup into another. If you are working in the garden, give him a small spade to dig his own holes. If you are fixing something in the house, let him have a toy drill or bang things with a plastic hammer.
Melanie believes that music is hugely beneficial for children’s mental development. Not only are they learning about the joy of music itself, but musical instruction accelerates brain development in young children – especially in the brain areas responsible for processing sound, language, speech and reading, according to a five-year study by neuroscientists at the University of Southern California. Melanie suggests classes for early musical exposure. Raeesa adds that even just singing “action” songs that involve clapping hands, touching toes or jumping up and down with your child is excellent for his development.