Learning Activities for Toddlers — All Fun, Easy, and Free!

Ninety percent of a child’s brain is developed by the time she turns five, but most kids don’t enter preschool until age three or four.

While many states are implementing early education programs (like HeadStart) to make sure that our teeniest humans are getting the education they need, there’s still a lot you can do to foster brain growth and development in your wee one.

The Brain

The brain is a complex and fascinating organ composed of billions of neurons, but at birth, children are essentially a blank slate. Every experience they have allows them to make additional neural connections. Think of it as stringing up telephone wires — every time they pet a dog, hear a song, or touch your face, another wire gets connected. The experiences that they repeat most frequently create the strongest connections. These become the memories that children can most easily retrieve — and eventually, the skills that children feel most comfortable with.

Connections that do not get used get “pruned," in a process that speeds up around age three. This is a process in which the brain weeds out unnecessary “wires" to enable the strengthening of those connections it does need.

This is why it’s so important to give your child the experiences you want her to have while she’s young, and to do so frequently. This will create and fortify those neural pathways. To continue using the telephone analogy, you — the parent — are your child’s operator (it’s an old-timey phone system). You are your child’s gateway to the world, her best resource, and best teacher. And you should definitely put reading on speed dial.

The Benefits of Brain Building

Smart playing with your baby may feel like just playing, but really, you are stringing up those neural wires that help your child develop her language, number sense, and social and spatial skills, according to Forbes. Something as simple as talking to your child can increase her vocabulary for a lifetime, and prime her for greater success in school and a love of learning now.

The best way to raise smart kids is to give them a solid foundation. Many states have invested in early childhood education for that reason. As a parent, with or without state-funded programs, you can make the most of those early years with the following tips and (free!) resources.

Activities to Do at Home

Play every day.

What almost all scientists agree on is that you are your child’s best toy. Sing, move, talk, or choose from a wealth of activities at Baby Center that suit your child’s stage of development.

Stay curious.

You are also your baby’s main role model, and curious adults raise curious children. Whether or not you are paying attention, your child is watching you. Make a point of not only answering the bajillions of questions your toddler asks, but ask some of your own, too.

Talk it out.

Any activity can be an opportunity to practice using language. Tell stories about what’s happening and what’s going to happen next. Challenge your child by trying out big or difficult words — not just baby-talk. The best learning opportunities are those that are relevant and interesting to the baby — talk about something she enjoys as she engages with it, such as talking about the parts of her favorite toy while she plays with it.

According to The Guardian, children with a solid language base were more prepared for school in terms of both verbal and memory skills.

Use your hands.

Touch is key. Not that you’d ever want to try it, but this is one of the many reasons humans should not be raised by robots.

Gently stroking or massaging an infant not only increases her quality of sleep, but also assists brain development. Along with learning about facial expressions and sounds by imitating their parents, touch develops kids’ social-emotional awareness and self-esteem, according to Scientific American.

Free Resources

If you’d like more help getting started, check out these great resources!

  • Vroom: A user-friendly resource for parents that includes a free app with daily tips on building your baby’s brainpower.

  • Let’s Play!: A free app from Zero to Three that supports your child’s brain development through play at every stage.

  • The Power of Play : A free booklet, also from Zero to Three, that breaks down developmental stages in pleasant-to-read pages, accompanied by games and activities you can use throughout the day with your child.

  • Little Kids, Big Questions: A 12-part podcast that addresses some of the most common challenges that parents of babies and toddlers face.

  • Better Brains for Babies: A wealth of information on assisting your child’s cognitive development, including resources for parents and teachers alike. They also have a free podcast under the same name!

  • School Sparks: A collection of free worksheets for practicing essential school-readiness skills for preschoolers, as well as resources for parents.

  • First Things First: The state of Arizona has established FTF to help parents give their kids a solid foundation of skills, with some great illustrative videos for understanding brain development. Most notable on this site is their Twitter account (@azftf) which finds and shares fresh new ideas and resources daily!

And of course….your local library! Libraries contain a pirate’s treasure of free books for your child, resources for you, and often activities and events for small children that will broaden their bank of experiences!

Want to be sure that your child is also receiving a great education outside of your home? Find great preschools and child care programs near you.