It’s through interactions and experiences with loved and trusted adults that babies begin to make sense of the world. Learn how you can support your baby’s thinking skills from 0-12 months.
Babies learn by using their senses. They explore and discover by touching and mouthing objects, hearing voices and music, and seeing the colorful, fascinating wonder all around them. But the most important part of your child’s early learning experiences is you. It is through interactions and experiences with loved and trusted adults that babies begin to make sense of the world.
In this first year, babies are learning very important concepts. They learn about cause and effect when they shake a rattle and hear a sound, or when they pull on their mother’s glasses and hear her voice (much sterner than usual) tell them not to pull! They learn about size and shape by stacking blocks, mouthing them, and trying to fit them into the correctly-shaped holes. They learn to solve problems when they discover how to turn the crank to get the jack-in-the-box to pop up. They learn about gravity when they drop a spoon from the high chair and look down to the floor to see where it lands. They learn object permanence—that things they can’t see still exist—when they play peek-a-boo or crawl into the next room to find you.
Encourage your baby to explore.
You will see your baby act on her natural curiosity about the people and objects around her as she:
- Looks carefully at your face
- Inspects her hands, fingers, feet and toes
- Rolls to get closer to a person she wants to connect with or to an interesting object
- Babbles and then waits for your response
- Looks at and reaches for objects that interest her.
- Responds to familiar words like baba, mama, dada, night-night, teddy bear, etc.
Your baby’s curiosity reflects a desire to figure out how the people and objects in his world work. You will see your child’s curiosity in action as he:
- Touches his fingers and toes
- Bangs and shakes objects to see what they can do
- Pulls on long hair or earrings
- Uses sounds, facial expressions and gestures to get your attention
- Puts things in his mouth
- Watches things move
- Follows interesting sounds with his eyes
These actions help babies learn and build their confidence that they can “make things happen.” When children know they can have an impact on the people and objects around them, they feel confident and competent, which is a key part of developing positive self-esteem. In this way, thinking skills and social-emotional skills are tied together.
What you can do:
- Offer interesting objects to explore—fabrics of various textures, a ball of sticky masking tape, a wooden spoon and a metal one to touch and compare.
- Respond to her efforts to communicate. Use words to describe what she is experiencing: I see you looking at that ball on the shelf. Let me get that for you.
- Delight in their discoveries. You found your hands! Look what they can do. You can use them to reach that red ball.
- Provide the help your child needs to solve problems, such as showing your baby how to get the lid off the container so she can reach the blocks inside. But before you jump in, give her a chance to do it herself first.
Support your baby’s growing memory and ability to understand new ideas. You will see your baby’s memory develop as she:
- Recognizes familiar people
- Anticipates routines, for example, grabbing her “blanky” for naptime or crawling to the high chair when she sees you preparing food
- Responds (turning/smiling) when she hears her name spoken
- Shows pleasure when given a familiar object like a favorite book of her “lovey”
Your baby’s growing memory also helps her learn that objects and people still exist even when he can’t see them. This concept is called object permanence. You will see this new skill developing when your baby starts to look for hidden objects. This is because he remembers the object and knows it is still around…somewhere. He may also begin to protest when you leave him with a caregiver, even one he knows and loves. This is because he knows you are out there somewhere and naturally, he wants to make you come back!
During this first year your baby is also learning about the concept of cause and effect—that he can make things happen. When he shakes the rattle it makes a sound. When he bats at the mobile it moves. When he cries out for you, you come. Learning to make things happen is the foundation for solving problems. I want dad’s attention. What can I do? I will crawl to him and pull on his leg to let him know I want him to play. Young babies show you how they are now able to make things happen when they:
- Cry when they need something
- Drop food off a high chair tray, look down to the floor to see where it goes, and look for you to come pick it up
- Enjoy repeating a new activity (like pressing a button to see a toy pop up)
- Reach for a rattle to shake it and make a sound
What you can do:
- Play disappearing and reappearing games. Play peek-a-boo. Make a simple game of hiding objects to find. This helps develop your child’s memory and teaches him about object permanence.
- Encourage your child to explore objects and toys in different ways. Touching, banging, shaking, and rolling help children learn about how things work. Talk with your child about what he is doing. “You got the truck to move by pulling the string!”
Help your baby become a good problem-solver.
Babies learn to solve problems by examining and learning about new objects and people they encounter. Then they apply what they have learned to new situations. For example:
- A 7-month-old has figured out who she knows and who she doesn’t. So she holds her arms out so you will pick her up, but buries her head in your chest when a new person tries to talk to her.
- An 11-month-old waves bye-bye when her dad puts her in the crib for the night. This is after seeing her parents wave bye-bye to her many times when they leave for work.
Problem-solving is a critical thinking skill that helps babies be successful now, later in school, and the rest of their lives. In the beginning, the problems babies solve seem simple: How do I make the tambourine rattle? How do I make the jack pop up out of the box? But figuring out the answer to these dilemmas requires a lot of thought and trial-and-error. When they are successful, children feel confident and proud, which motivates them to explore and learn more from the people and world around them.
What you can do:
- Provide support for reaching goals. Watch your baby carefully. See what she is trying to make happen and help her solve the problem. If she is trying to roll over to reach an interesting object, encourage her to go as far as she can and then bring it close enough that she can get it and explore it.
- Model problem-solving. Take the top off the container and take the blocks out. Then put them back in and let her have a try. Young children learn a lot through imitation.
Explore differences in objects
One of the strategies babies use to figure out how the world works is by putting objects into categories. They notice similar features even among very different objects. A flower, a rattle, and grandpa’s nose are all very different, but they all can be grasped. Babies also notice differences among similar objects. If they are given a piece of furry fabric and a piece of rubber that are the same size, shape and color, babies will pat the fur and squeeze the rubber. This shows they have some idea about how these textures will feel and “should” be touched. (Berger, 166)
What you can do:
- Take “touching” walks. On your walks together, hold your baby’s hands up to a bumpy tree trunk. Crinkle a leaf and let her listen. Give her a flower petal to touch, or run her hand over tickly grass. Stop and listen together to the cars going by. Talk about what you are seeing and doing.
- Look at books that put objects into categories. While your baby won’t be able to understand how to sort objects yet, activities like these will help her build this skill over time.
Make everyday activities “teachable moments.”
Children learn so much during daily routines likes feeding, diapering and bath time. For example, during bath time, babies get to explore math and science concepts like empty/full, in/out, wet/dry. Filling and dumping cups help children learn about empty and full, and in and out. When your child makes the rubber duck splash in the tub, she learns about cause and effect. When the duck stays on top of the water but the washcloth sinks, she is learning about floating and sinking.
What You Can Do:
- Make the most of daily routines. Let your baby help drop clothing into the washing machine. Hand her groceries she can put on the conveyer belt. Sing a song about body parts as you change her diaper. These routine activities are not-so-routine for your growing baby. They teach her how things work.
- Give your child some everyday “toys”. See how a wooden spoon and a whisk make very different sounds when tapped on a pot lid. Pull a scarf through a cardboard paper towel tube to make the scarf appear and disappear. Let your child feel the difference between the brush used on her hair, and the spiny teeth of the comb. Activities like this give your child the chance to discover the properties and functions of objects, an important part of problem-solving.
What You Can Do
Offer interesting objects to explore
Such as fabrics of various textures, a ball of sticky masking tape, a wooden spoon and a metal one, smooth balls and bumpy balls.
Respond to her efforts to communicate.
Use words to describe what she is experiencing: I see you looking at that ball on the shelf. Let me get that for you.
Delight in your child’s discoveries.
You found your hands! Look what they can do. You can use them to reach that red ball.
Provide the help your child needs to solve problems
Such as showing your baby how to get the lid off the container so she can reach the blocks inside. Give her a chance, though, to see if she can do it by herself first.
Play disappearing and reappearing games.
Play peek-a-boo. Make a simple game of hiding objects to find. This helps develop your child’s memory and teaches him about object permanence.
Encourage your child to explore objects and toys in different ways.
Touching, banging, shaking, and rolling help children learn about how things work. Talk with your child about what he is doing. You got the truck to move by pulling the string!
Provide support for reaching goals.
Watch your baby carefully. See what she is trying to make happen and help her solve the problem. If she is trying to roll over to reach an interesting object, encourage her to go as far as she can and then bring it close enough that she can get it and explore it.
Take the top off the container and take the blocks out. Then put them back in and let her have a try. Young children learn a lot through imitation.
Take “touching” walks.
On your walks together, hold your baby’s hands up to a bumpy tree trunk. Crinkle a leaf and let her listen. Give her a flower petal to touch, or run her hand over tickly grass. Stop and listen together to the cars going by. Talk about what you are seeing and doing.
Make the most of daily routines.
Let your baby help drop clothing into the washing machine. Hand her groceries she can put on the conveyer belt. Sing a song about body parts as you change her diaper. These routine activities are not-so-routine for your growing baby, as she learns how things work and begins to imitate the activities of the people she loves.
Give your child some everyday “toys”.
See how a wooden spoon and a whisk make very different sounds when tapped on a pot lid. Pull a scarf through a cardboard paper towel tube to make the scarf appear and disappear. Let your child feel the difference between the brush used on her hair, and the spiny teeth of the comb. Activities like this give your child the chance to discover the properties and functions of objects, an important part of problem-solving
Parent-Child Activities that Promote Thinking Skills
Create an obstacle course.
Lay out boxes to crawl through, stools to step over, pillows to jump on top of, low tables to slither under. Describe what your child is doing as he goes through the course. This helps him understand these concepts.
Play red light/green light.
Cut two large circles, one from green paper and one from red. Write “stop” on the red and “go” on the green, and glue them (back to back) over a popsicle stick holder. This is your traffic light. Stand where your child has some room to move toward you, such as at the end of a hallway. When the red sign is showing, your child must stop but when she sees green, she can GO. Alternate between red and green. See if your child wants to take a turn being the traffic light.
Build big minds with “big blocks”.
Gather together empty boxes of all sorts—very big (like a packing box), medium-sized (shirt or empty cereal boxes), and very small (like a cardboard jewelry box). Let your child stack, fill, dump and explore these different boxes. Which can he fit inside? Which are the best for stacking? Can he put the big boxes in one pile and the small boxes in another?
Make a puzzle.
Make two copies of a photo of your child. Glue one of the photos to sturdy cardboard and cut it into three simple pieces. Put the puzzle together in front of your child. Show her the uncut photo. Put them side by side. Wait and watch to see what she will do. Eventually, she will touch or move the puzzle. With your guidance and help, is she able to put it back together?
Frequently Asked Questions
My 18-month-old is obsessed with our remote control. Why does she always go back to it, even when I try to distract her with other toys?
Such is the way with toddlers: Their most frustrating behaviors are often both normal and developmentally appropriate. At this age, your child is working very hard to make sense of her world. One of the most important ways she does that is by watching and then imitating what you do. You are her first and most important teacher. She sees you say “thank you” to the grocery clerk so she learns to say “thank you” too. She watches you sweep the floors and she picks up a broom to help. Unfortunately, you can’t turn this desire to imitate on and off. So when your child sees you touching the remote control, she wants to touch it, too. After all, it must be a good thing if you’re doing it!
Why do children love electronics so much?
You’ll notice that many toys designed for children this age have features they can explore through touch, such as buttons and raised textures—just like most electronics. However, toddlers almost always prefer to play with the real life objects they see you using which is why they go for remotes, cell phones, etc. Toddlers are learning that to be successful, they need to find out how things work. And electronics make for very interesting props. After all, playing with buttons on the remote offers the exciting possibility that–poof!–the magical machine will come alive. Think of how empowering and exciting this is for your child. But it can also drive you crazy! So now is the time to make sure that all “off-limits” electronics are child-proofed or kept out of the way of little hands. However, be sure to offer your child other objects or toys with buttons and other gadgets that he can make work.
How can I get my toddler to stop going for off-limits objects?
Unfortunately, toddlers simply lack the self-control necessary to resist the wonderful temptation of electronic gadgets and other off-limits items (like shiny picture frames or pointy plugs that fit so nicely into those holes in the wall). While toddlers can understand and respond to words such as “no”, they don’t yet have the self-control to stop their behavior, or to understand the consequences if they don’t. Patience is important, since after telling your toddler 20 times not to play with the remote, chances are she’ll still go for it again. Most children don’t even begin to master controlling their impulses until about age 2 ½.
If the object your child is after isn’t likely to pose a danger to him (such as a remote control–although the batteries are a danger if she puts them into her mouth), the decision of how to set limits is yours. Some parents choose to keep all of these gadgets out of reach and don’t allow their children to touch them until they are older. Or, you could allow your child to use them under your close supervision, such as having your child turn the TV on when you’re planning to watch a show and turning it off when you’re through. This models for your child that there are times when using this equipment is okay and times when it’s not.
What’s most important is that you recognize your child’s needs (learning cause and effect, imitating you) and help her meet them in ways that are acceptable to you.
My father recently died, and I’ve been dealing with it okay, but I’m not sure what to do concerning my 20-month-old. When we go to my parents’ house, she asks for Pop-Pop and we tell her he’s not home. However, I can’t keep doing this. I don’t want her to forget her grand-dad, but how can you explain to a baby that someone has died?
This must be a difficult time as you cope with your own feelings and try to make sense of it all for your young child. Helping her understand what has happened to Pop-Pop is indeed a challenge, as 20-month-olds can’t comprehend the idea of death, or even that they will never see someone again. At the same time, children are very tuned in to the feelings of the important adults in their lives, so it is likely that your child, no matter how well you’re handling your Dad’s death, understands that something sad has happened. It is important that what she is sensing is acknowledged.
Since a 20-month-old can’t understand death, trying to explain it to her would probably cause her more confusion and anxiety. Instead focus on addressing her feelings. What’s most important for your daughter at this time is for you to say something like, “Pop-pop isn’t here. I miss him too.” At this time she won’t be able to understand more.
As your child gets closer to 3, she will likely start to ask questions about what happened to her grandfather. You can then explain that Pop-pop is not coming back; that he died, which means that his body stopped working. Tell her this happens when people are very old or sick and doctors and nurses can’t make their bodies work anymore. You can explain that Pop-pop couldn’t do things like eat or play outside anymore. This gives her a context she can relate to. If she asks whether Pop-pop will ever come back, you should tell her the truth–that he won’t. If your child asks whether you or she or others that she loves will die, you can explain that your bodies are healthy and strong so you are not going to die now.
How should I answer my child’s questions about where her Pop-pop is?
Answer your daughter’s questions based on what you think she can understand. Start with something along the lines of: “Pop-pop isn’t here. I miss him too.” As your child gets older and her questions get more mature, your responses will change accordingly until you feel you are ready to tell her: “Pop-pop died. That means that his body stopped working and the doctors and nurses couldn’t make him better.”
Keep your responses brief. A mistake many parents make is giving more information than their child can process. On the other hand, some parents are tempted not to talk about a deceased person for fear that it will upset the child or themselves. But, of course, avoiding the topic doesn’t make the memories or feelings go away. It just deprives your child of the opportunity to make sense of the experience.
How can I help her keep the memory of her grandfather alive?
When your daughter is old enough, share photos, tell stories, and draw pictures of Pop-Pop. You can also have her do something in your father’s memory. Send off a balloon that says, “I love you”. Or have her help you plant a rose bush, for instance, if her grandfather loved flowers. Reading books about loss can also be very helpful. Some good books include When a Pet Dies by Fred Rogers (Puffin, 1998), When Dinosaurs Die by Laurie Krasny and Marc Brown (Little Brown & Co., 1998), and About Dying by Sara Bonnett Stein (Walker & Co., 1985).
Does my toddler have a “short attention span” because she won’t sit for a story for more than a minute?
It is perfectly normal for toddlers to not sit still very long–period. Most don’t like to stay in one place for long now that they can explore in so many new ways– by running, jumping and climbing. So, an adult’s idea of snuggling on the couch to hear a story may not be the same idea a toddler has for story-time. You may only be able to read or talk about a few pages in a book at a time.
Here are some ways to engage active children in reading:
- Read a book at snack times when your child may be more likely to sit for longer.
- Offer your child a small toy to hold in her hand—such as a squishy ball—to keep her body moving while you read.
- Read in a dramatic fashion, exaggerating your voice and actions. This often keeps toddlers interested.
- Get your child active and moving by encouraging her to join in on familiar phrases or words, act out an action in the story, or find objects on the page. These “activities” can help their attention stay focused.
- Choose stories that have the same word or phrase repeated. The repetition helps toddlers look forward to hearing the familiar phrase again and also develops their memory and language skills. Encourage her to “help” you read when you get to this refrain.
- Try books that invite action on the part of the child, such as pop-up books, touch-and-feel books, and books with flaps and hidden openings for them to explore.