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Supporting the learning of babies and toddlers at home

Learning for infants and toddlers involves a lot of experimentation and discovery, and this learning can be easily facilitated at home with common household materials. Hands-on, practical, sensory and emotional activity with objects  switch on neural connections in the brain that underpin thinking and learning. The earliest years are also a sensitive time for the development of certain aspects of language learning. It is very important that infants’ and toddlers’ experiences in this period provide them with sufficient language exposure to nourish their brains.

Books and rhymes

Books are an important source of new knowledge, vocabulary and  language that is unlike everyday conversation. Stimulating language development is really very simple – regularly talking, singing and reading books to infants and toddlers helps them  learn to listen, and gives them an opportunity to respond and be listened to.

  • Sing songs and rhymes, those with actions or lots of repetition are especially important. Rhythm and repetitive language make language learning easier for infants and toddlers.
  • Read books every day, sharing them together and talking about the pictures and characters. Relate books to everyday experience (for example, by seeing a firetruck on the road and linking it back to a story or song, or relate the dog in a book to the dog Grandma has at home). Sit an infant or toddler on your lap and cuddle as you read, as reading together also helps build strong bonds. It is never too early to begin reading to infants.

Exploratory play and sensory investigation

Infants and toddlers will engage in exploratory play and discovery with a simple supply of a range of common household objects and materials. In fact, the best kind of play objects for this age group are ordinary, everyday, open-ended materials that can be manipulated and used in various ways, moved, carried, shared, combined and taken apart in various ways. Examples are pebbles and leaves, ribbons, chains, figurines, papers, blocks and plastic pipes. Play objects for toddlers can also be larger parts such as  moveable blocks, platforms, and ladders, and also include natural elements such as water, soil and sand.

Exploratory play with materials and objects in which babies and toddlers handle, explore and make discoveries about the properties and features of objects is important for:

  • Stimulating the formation of neuronal networks in the brain. Infants and toddlers require repeated experiences stimulating the different senses to activate different brain systems and build the neuronal connections needed for thinking.
  • Developing early cognitive skills such as the ability to focus, sustain attention and identify features of an object or activity, which are the foundation of later learning.
  • Stimulating discovery. Objects and materials offer children opportunities to learn about colour, size, shape, weight and texture, and about physical qualities including coldness, heaviness and prickliness, solidity and malleability, transparency and reflectiveness. They learn strategies such as placing, piling, pairing, matching, sequencing, building and banging. You might notice your infant or toddler engaging in repetitive patterns of similar actions such as carrying round or transporting objects, or lining them up, which is one way in which children of this age build up concepts such as same and different, one and many, how spheres move, how little fits inside big, how shiny reflects and so on.
  • Developing hand-eye coordination and manipulative skills.
  • Supporting early communication and language development. Engaging with babies and toddlers and talking about what they are looking at and interested in, encourages and supports language development.

How can I support play with materials and objects?

  • Select materials that arouse children’s interest and attention, and present them as invitations to play. For example, raid your cooking cupboards to find pans, muffin trays, baking tins, wooden spoons and plastic spatulas, and arrange these in a way that invites your baby or toddler to explore sound making. Or place a pile of ribbons next to a container with a hole cut in the lid, as an invitation for your child to try to stuff the ribbons in the tin (for more ideas, see link). Consider items that invite action, that can be moved, banged together, put inside one another etc, or that can be rearranged.
  • Give babies and toddlers plenty of time to explore the properties of objects and experiment with different possibilities which leads to more complex play. Choose a good time to introduce materials (such as a calm time when your child is well rested, well-fed, and physically comfortable).
  • Sit nearby so you can be responsive and attentive yet which supports babies to feel secure and comfortable to explore. Share delight and enjoy objects with your child, but try to avoid verbal encouragement and commentary or clapping hands which can be intrusive and disrupt children’s concentration.
  • Ensure babies and toddlers can move freely, as movement is an important way in which they explore objects. It is better for your baby to be sat or laid on the floor rather than contained in a highchair or seat. Be supportive when your toddler moves objects, or creates new uses for objects, as this play is all about invention and discovery.
  • Encourage children to help sort objects at the end of play to encourage early mathematical concepts as well as language development. Ask questions like ‘Can I have all the big tubes?’ and ‘Can you make sure the tins are empty?’

By Dr Vicki Hargraves


Dr Vicki Hargraves

Vicki runs our ECE webinar series and also is responsible for the creation of many of our ECE research reviews. Vicki is a teacher, mother, writer, and researcher living in Marlborough. She recently completed her PhD using philosophy to explore creative approaches to understanding early childhood education. She is inspired by the wealth of educational research that is available and is passionate about making this available and useful for teachers.

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