Building Blocks to Better Babies

Toys don't have to be high-tech to support learning and development

While the human brain begins forming just weeks after conception, brain development is a lifelong process. As parents, we want the best for our kids, and it seems like every day there are new options to boost our baby’s brainpower.

From “The News Hour” to “Nightline,” journalists report on the explosive trend toward super learning. However, while parents try many “improved” options in educational toys and gizmos, they often forget they are their children’s best teachers, and that toys don’t have to be high-tech for learning.

The Value of Building Blocks

Last fall, the Archives of Pediatric & Adolescent Medicine reported results of a study by Dr. Dimitri Christakis that showed children who play with blocks scored an average 15 percent higher on language tests. The study stated that the old standard toys remain top options. Furthermore, interactive imaginative play may also help children control impulsive behavior and develop longer attention spans. The study particularly noted activities such as stacking blocks or building a Lego tower.

“Many toys make claims they are actually educational for kids,” said Dr. Christakis. “The interesting thing is that things like blocks never made such claims. But blocks are one of the few toys that actually now have shown they do help.”

The Importance of Talking to Your Baby

Both environment and genetics play a role in a baby’s brain development. Everyone is born with the capacity to learn language by recognizing human speech and to discriminate individual speech sounds, put meaning to words, and even catch grammatical cues. However, to learn all of this, a child must hear language, must participate in conversations, and hear words in context.

When my daughter was an infant, I talked to her the entire time I breastfed. I assumed that since that was her dinnertime, it needed to resemble what happened around our dinner table. I also read Little Golden Books to her. At one year, she would sit and listen to several storybooks before she wanted to change activities. By 18 months, her vocabulary topped 150 words. Around 2 1/2, she was mimicking her favorite Tigger cartoon by repeatedly saying the word ‘ridiculous’ exactly as he said it, as ‘redickalus’ with a fabricated lisp ending the final syllable. Oh, and as a side note, her favorite toy until age 5 was Legos.

Male and Female Brain Development

Now, my daughter’s experience is uniquely her own, but neuroscientists have documented the differences between male and female brains. By three months of age, boys and girls are already responding differently to human speech. Research shows girls advance earlier in vision, hearing, memory, smell, and touch, as well as in the ability to “read” human faces and voices.

Girls’ emergence of fine motor skills also leads that of baby boys. By age 3, however, boys usually catch up in these areas and outperform girls in visual-spatial integration, which helps in navigation, jigsaw puzzles, and certain hand-eye coordination.

“My son loves to do scavenger hunts,” says Linda Miller. “When he was about three, we would take short walks around our neighborhood, and I would mention something I wanted him to look for, or a place I wanted us to walk to. I would let him take the lead, and he was thrilled when he ‘found’ our objective.”

Susan Stelfox, author of Baby Be Loved: Growing and Learning Together During the First 24 Weeks reminds parents they can entertain and teach their children better than any super-baby-toy.

“Offer experiences that stimulate your baby’s senses,” Stelfox said. She suggests talking to your baby to develop language skills, letting the child use touch to learn and explore, introducing pleasant aromas, providing floor game options to perfect motor skills, reciting nursery rhymes to demonstrate up-and-down rhythm, and getting silly with face games and sounds to help develop baby’s vision and hearing.

With today’s rising costs, the less expensive, tried-and-true methods are still the best bets for early learning. Join your child in some block building—both the wooden type and the relationship kind. Both will pay off long-term benefits.

Categories: Infant/Pre-School, Little Ones