It is possible to build your baby’s brain! Here are some practical activities you can do with your child from birth to foster memory, math’s and creativity.
Recent advancements in infant brain research have provided us with astounding new information about the abilities of our newest generation. Until recently, it was thought a child’s intelligence was predetermined by the genes of his parents. Scientists have now learned that Mum and Dad’s genes may decide only his main brain circuits – those that control basic functions such as breathing.
What this means for parents is that there are literally trillions of complex connections waiting be made in their child’s minds during his early years. Early environmental experiences, such as hearing music, stimulate certain brain cells and cause them to develop connections to other cells.
We covered the first three elements of building a brilliant young mind here. These were problem-solving, language and reading. In this article, we complete the series and look in depth at the remaining three facets of brain development: memory, maths and creativity.
Brain growth happens remarkably quickly and by the end of the first year, baby’s brain will have doubled in size and by age 5, have reached 90% of its expected size. So, parents’ efforts to foster learning experiences for brain development in their child cannot be understated.
So how then, does a parent or caregiver foster memory, maths and creativity in their child? In their book Baby Minds, Brain-Building Games your Baby will Love, Linda Acredolo and Susan Goodwyn suggest exposure to different games, experiences and surroundings.
It is important to remember, the six domains of brain building do not work in isolation. Language enhances creativity, just as maths is promoted by memory skills.
One golden rule to remember though is that active learning beats passive learning every time. If a parent can actively engage their child in a task or game, she will have a far greater learning outcome.
Below are some practical activities you can do with your child from birth to foster the remaining three domains of brain development.
A child’s memory is active from the very beginning. It helps them to recognise their parent’s faces and recall their favourite lullabies.
Provide a variety of interesting experiences like trips to the grocery store or inclusion at family meals. This helps your baby to ‘make a memory’ of the various sights, smells, sounds and textures in his world.
Change your child’s vantage point from time-to-time. Children become accustomed to patterns and routines.
If you lay your child down facing one direction every night, they learn to expect to see the door from a certain angle. Changing the way they lay down, or sit at the dinner table, encourages their brain to form a new memory of their surroundings.
Established routines such as bedtime and bathtime help your child to learn a pattern of events. Eventually they will add words and gestures to the routine. For instance, when you say bath time, she might respond with “towel” or “duckie”.
Speak to your toddler about things you are doing today, but also about the things you did recently. Encourage their speech to recall these events themselves. Ask your child: “Where did we go yesterday?” As his speech develops, he will respond: “To the park.”
You can establish what Acredolo and Goodwyn term a ‘happy-sad bedtime routine’. As your child is going to bed, have her recall the happy and sad moments from her day. As language and understanding improves, you can include other emotions such as the funny moments from her day. This helps with emotional reflection, but also builds a child’s autobiographical memory.
Although too young to count to 10, infants have the ability to perform primitive maths. In one study, a 5-month-old was placed in front of an empty cage. Two mice were placed in the cage before a screen was set up in front of the cage. When the screen was removed, only one mouse remained. The child knew to expect that two mice were behind the screen and was surprised by the single mouse.
Count when performing tasks. For instance, “Let’s get you into your carseat. One, two, three … there we go!”
Repeat actions in a set number of times for a while, for example, tickle, tickle, tickle, and then suddenly change the number.
Encourage play with toys that promote spatial relations. For instance, shape sorters, puzzles, blocks.
Point out to your child when the number of objects around them changes. “Look there’s another bird, now there are two!”
Be sure to give your child opportunities to count, even if it slows things down. Also, find scenarios for your child to compare things in terms of size or amount. “Does mummy have more grapes than you, or less?”
Play traditional board games with your child to practise numbers in a fun way.
The often-derogatory phrase “child’s play” is used to deign a task as simple or even unworthy. Yet, the development of your child’s creativity through play, artwork, dance and music is one of the most crucial building blocks for a child’s eventual social and emotional wellbeing. Learning to express feelings, and have fun while doing it, are at the very core of being a child.
Create routines that make your baby giggle. For instance, blow a raspberry on her stomach as you get her dressed each morning.
Blow bubbles around your child.
Begin to model pretend play, for example, how to sip a cup of tea.
Create silly routines that make your child laugh and in which your child has a role. For example, have your child place a funny hat on your head.
Take turns seeing objects hidden in random scribbles. For instance, take a picture your child has drawn and ask if they can find a snowman or a shoe in it.
Always laugh at your child’s jokes, no matter how many times you’ve heard them.
Play along with scenarios involving imaginary companions.
Although exercising your baby’s brain and developing their skills is extremely rewarding as a parent, Acredolo and Goodwyn emphasise that building a rich neural circuitry through early loving experiences is critical to intellectual development: “Love comes first. Your baby’s emotional security should always be your first priority. Only from a secure attachment base can an infant’s intellectual energy be free to explore the world around him and take full advantage of the early experiences that come his way.”
Hannah Denton is a news journalist who has written for publications such as The New Zealand Herald and The Dominion Post. She lives in Auckland with her husband and two young sons.