Mary, Mary, quite contrary,
How does your garden grow?
With silver bells and cockle shells
And pretty maids all in a row.
It's an everyday nursery rhyme, it's simple to sing with your small child, and apparently this nursery rhyme about a little child watering her garden is watering your little child's mind!
Early childhood educators have identified pre-reading skills that are necessary for the learning of reading and the mastery of language. They include phonological awareness, or the awareness of speech sounds and rhyme similarities, vocabulary or knowing lots of words, and the more a child loves the enjoyment and pleasure of using language, the more success they will have in reading and writing and academic studies. Nursery rhymes, with their words of imagery, rhymes and rhythm that children find so fun, have all these qualities!
Let's look at other ways that you are probably already simply, instinctively and effectively watering your child's mind, and what the researchers are now saying about it.
Let's look at songs and music, activities that lots of caregivers instinctively share with their children. The National Network for Child Care at http://www.nncc.org/Series/good.time.music.html explains why songs, action songs, music and rhythm are important for children. They allow children to express their emotions, channel their energy creatively, gain confidence in themselves as they coordinate their minds and their bodies together, learn new words and ideas, and learn about themselves as they explore what they like, what they like when and what they can do. Learning these physical and emotional controls, ways of expression and self-knowledge are necessary for a happy life now in childhood and in their future adulthood. This is the real reason why we let our toddlers take out the pots, pans and wooden spoons and bang them, making a terrible ruckus.
How about even simpler, even more unassuming activities, such as having fun blowing a dandelion's seeds into the air. The child development psychologists Linda Acredolo and Susan Goodwyn in their book "Baby Minds: Brain-Building Games Your Baby Will Love" explain that such a simple yet fun and stimulating activity will stimulate your baby's brain development. The practical conclusion that these researchers draw from the latest research is that "If your baby is not having fun, it's probably not worth doing".
Thus, the conclusion we can draw is "If your small child is having fun, then it's probably stimulating your child's physical and mental development". We already instinctively knew that, and so it's wonderful to have researchers and experts confirming and encouraging this. Whenever my toddler pulls the toilet paper still on its roll and runs around the house redecorating it in toilet paper, I just tell myself that this is a fantastic activity for his brain, body and creative imagination.
Actually, small children are programmed to learn and to engage in activities that will develop their minds and bodies. It probably has not escaped your attention that kids will naturally invent a fun and interesting game (fun and interesting to the child) out of absolutely anything. The brain plasticity scientist Lise Eliot explains in "What's Going On In There? How the Brain and Mind Develop in the First Five Years of Life" that there are way too many connections in the brain and communications with the rest of the body ? billions of neurons and a quadrillion synapses at last count ? for it to be preprogrammed in genetic DNA material. Thus, babies and children are programmed to try things out and to repetitively practise them for days and weeks and months, so that brain circuitry will sprout in the first place and then solidify to become permanent. Actually, this is my own layperson's description. Lise Eliot refers to it as neurogenesis, synaptogenesis and myelination. It's the reason why babies kick in the womb, so that the connection between the leg-kicking part of the brain and the actual leg can be developed. It's the reason why my newly mobile son never tires of playing with the toilet brush in the toilet bowl, developing and practising his hand-eye coordination and his understanding of the physical world, in this visual, audio and tactile activity of splashing water.
We all know that cuddling our babies and children is important for their emotional and psychological development. Lise Eliot gives examples in the chapter "The Importance of Touch" of how touch and physical contact increases physical and brain development. Studies show that premature babies that receive cuddling and massages thrive measurably more and do better on visual baby tests. Children with various medical problems had better clinical outcomes after receiving massage therapy. Perhaps you have seen the famous "Rescuing Hug" (such as at http://www.daurelia.com/spirit/rescue.htm or http://www.snopes.com/glurge/hug.htm), where the physical touch of her baby twin sister was responsible for the very survival of a premature baby.
Let's talk about talking. The very experienced authority on early childhood development Dr Burton White gives the following advice. Allow your newly mobile child to explore your home. He'll bring things back to show you and will have a need to be fulfilled when doing that. Stop, quickly look and see what that need is, and then respond to the need. Dr Burton White says that the secret to teaching language, whether it be verbal language or sign language, is to respond to that need with language and play on that need. Dr White is the author of "First Three Years of Life" and "Raising a Happy Unspoiled Child", and you can see and hear him giving this advice in Joseph Garcia's "Sign with your Baby" video. And in my house, you can see me having a conversation with a toddler about a wet toilet brush he has just brought me.
How to increase your child's mathematics ability? Studies have shown that studying music statistically significantly increases children's math skills and spatial-temporal reasoning abilities. The question now is why. A "Today's Parent" article at http://www.todaysparent.com/education/general/article.jsp?content=20030903_124111_1696&page=1 cites a brain-imaging "Mozart Effect" type of study that showed that the same parts of the brain were active when listening to Mozart as when doing puzzles and playing chess, suggesting that music is like warm-up exercises for the brain. Another study cited in that article goes much further, suggesting that music is more than just a cultural artifact; that our brains are actually structured for music, just like our brains are structured for speech and walking. Brain patterns were mapped and assigned musical tones to mark changes in neural activity. When played back, instead of sounding like a random sequence of notes, it almost sounded like a melody of a recognizable style of music!
"No!" ? We hear it from those terrible-twos toddlers. Well, Lise Eliot in "What's Going On In There?" presents a study about the effects of parents saying "No", "Don't" and "Stop it" on the development of their children. Research established that children that heard a larger proportion of this type of negative feedback had poorer language skills than children whose parents kept their negative responses to a minimum and instead gave encouraging, positive and dialog-inducing responses. The online games at www.KiddiesGames.com provide a fun model of this positive pattern of interaction. When the child playing a game gets something right, the friendly child character on the screen says "That's right!" or congratulates the player. When the child playing a game clicks on the wrong thing, the upbeat child on the screen doesn't actually say "No" or "Wrong". Instead, it explains in the same positive tone what the child playing just did and what another possible (and correct) answer could have been. The feedback is accurate and positively and cheeringly encouraging. As far as I know, there have been no studies done on the effects that toddlers saying "No" to their parents have on those parents...
Can you remember all this information next time you're interacting with your small child? Let's summarize it all like the current Canadian CBS Television campaign slogan ? "1) Comfort, 2) play with and 3) teach your child", in that order. This is how you water your child's mind, and you're probably already doing it. So follow your instinct, let your child lead the way to play, go with the flow and enjoy playing with your small child. While the results of recent studies may be news to you, the recommended actions are just a reminder!
The author, Emma Rath, is the creator of free, fun, educational online computer games for babies and preschoolers at http://www.KiddiesGames.com These games encourage caregivers to cuddle their children on their lap while participating in games of open-ended exploration that never say "No", except for one fun game whose serious mission is to undo the instinctive child behavior of hiding in the case of a house fire.