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How Babies and Toddlers Learn

baby learning through playGetting to re-experience the world through the perspective of a baby or a toddler is commonly cited by new parents as one of the biggest unexpected perks of parenthood. What comes along with this, though, are the stressful questions that many parents face: How can I best prepare my baby or toddler for a successful life? Are there things I can do to get them developmentally ahead of schedule? What is the best way to teach them what they need to learn?

Child development research tells us that there are distinct developmental stages that children go through, during which their typical methods of learning change. The first, of course is infancy; this stage is generally thought to last from birth to 12 months, though the definition of a baby and a toddler tend to overlap between 12 and 24 months. Children are typically considered to be “toddlers” between the ages of 1 and 3. The first three years of life mark an incredible period of rapid mental and physical growth that is unmatched at any other point in the human lifespan.

How do babies learn?

For babies, learning consists primarily of sensory experience. For example, babies will use their senses to make connections; this begins with sight (making eye contact with caregivers), hearing (listening to you, beginning to babble), and imitating faces. This is why, as their motor skills develop enough for them to grasp items, they begin to throw things or put everything in their mouths. In part, babies do this because they are still developing their hand coordination, and they’re just not very good at using their fingers yet! It also allows them to determine the weight, taste, and texture of different objects and demonstrates their growing interest in the world around them. Tasting objects conveys important survival information (“Can I eat this?”) while also strengthening their muscles and coordination.

As babies grow, they start to roll around, reach for things, and eventually, crawl. The important thing to remember about babies is that you don’t “teach” them the way that you might teach a young child. For babies, learning is developed through exploration and imitation. You want to expose them to as many different sensory experiences as possible—textures, sounds, sights, smells, tastes. Imitative play will often start around age 1 (in the grey area between infancy and toddlerhood).

How do toddlers learn?

The primary way toddlers explore and learn about the world is through play. If you have spent any time around a toddler, you likely have found yourself sitting dutifully at a table while they cook up a fancy plastic meal (made to your request!) in their play-kitchen. This happens because young children like to watch their parents and caregivers, then imitate them during imaginative play.

Toddlers also learn by watching and observing life around the house and out in the world, and listening to family members and strangers converse. As toddlers develop, they begin to develop language skills. You may have heard buzz about the “word gap” between affluent and underprivileged children. The basic theory behind this is that more affluent children are exposed to, on average, thirty million more words than peers from lower-income families. This vocabulary gap begins to be evident in toddlers, so it is very important to read different books to your children and expose them to new words in conversation. However, keep in mind that toddlers love to repeat themselves (and you), so be sure not to inadvertently teach them any words you wouldn’t want them repeating!

When they start to grasp language, toddlers begin to ask endless questions. It can be tiring for an adult, especially after a long day at work, but it’s important to always answer any questions they have to the best of your ability. This helps you to bond with them and maintain the ideal parent-child relationship, where the child feels loved and that his or her needs will always be met. A good relationship with caregivers is also instrumental in a child’s intellectual and emotional development.

How can a nanny help my child learn and develop?

At the Nanny Authority, we work with many well-educated nannies with degrees in education, child development, child psychology, and related fields, as well as career nannies with decades of experience. Our nannies have an arsenal of child-centric knowledge at their disposal and are skilled at connecting with children and stimulating their intellectual curiosity.

If you hire the right nanny, you can feel confident that your child is being directly interacted with every day, by a caregiver that has a deep understanding of their personality, likes, and dislikes. Your nanny will be able to tailor activities to best suit your child’s specific needs and interests, and play games with them that are both fun and challenging.