Parents and caregivers are always on the lookout for tools and activities that can help develop the young, curious minds of their children. Many can feel frustrated when they feel they don’t have access to such resources. The good news is that they don’t need to always go beyond the home to find these resources – the daily interactions that parents and caregivers have with children are the most joyful, active and meaningful ways of helping children to grow their brains!

These activities help to develop critical skills named ‘executive function’, which are like an air-traffic-control system for the brain – they manage the sights, tastes, smells and textures that children’s senses receive from their surroundings. 

“Executive-function skills help children to learn, hold information in their minds, control their actions, and follow a task through to the end. They help with success in school and in life,” says Sesame Workshop South Africa’s Director of Education and Outreach, Mari Payne.

Parents can engage with their young children as they go about everyday life. Good examples include turning daily moments like household chores or gardening into playful learning opportunities by doing them together.

Mari Payne provides the following guidance and tips for positive engagement that naturally stimulates and develops a young child’s brain. These are grouped into age groups, remembering that each child develops at their own pace and these are guidelines from around that particular age.

From birth to around 24 months

As little ones follow objects with their eyes, and cry when activities don’t change quickly enough, they’re showing signs that they are thinking and learning. Babies may begin to create pictures and ideas in their minds and make decisions about those pictures (for example, starting to remember that unseen objects are still there, such as an object hidden under a blanket). Recognising familiar faces and sounds is a sign of their working memory in action, as their brains become more and more able to hold on to information for longer periods of time.

Mari suggests the following age-appropriate activities for your baby or toddler;

  • Play peek-a-boo to help develop skills to differentiate themselves from the world and learn that they are separate beings and caregivers will come back even if they did not see you for a while.
  • Practice problem solving by playing with objects such as different shapes, blocks, and simple 2–3 piece puzzles.

At two years old

Children are beginning to hold information in their minds and may be able to follow two-step instructions (“Pick up the toy and put it in the box”). They’re also getting better at self-control, like not touching a fragile object when told not to. They may also understand other people’s plans or goals, like bringing over a nappy when they see a parent changing their sibling.

At around two years of age, Mari advises parents and caregivers to;

  • Practice persistence by building towers with blocks, and when they fall down, rebuilding them.
  • Play games like “Simon Says” in which children need to follow rules, and “Dance and Freeze!” to give them practice controlling their movements and following directions.

At three years old

Working out how to open doors or play with objects that involve moving parts are signs that children are beginning to solve simple problems on their own. They may be able to remember directions with two or more steps (“Please wash your hands, then come and sit down at the table and eat supper with us”) and resist temptations to do things such as throwing a cup onto the floor without thinking of the consequences.

Good activities for around the age of three include; 

  • Play matching games to help with memory. Ask children to find objects in books or around the house that are the same.
  • Help children feel good about their efforts, not just the outcome: “I see that you are working so hard on that puzzle, really thinking through where each piece fits.”

At four years old

Around this age, children can hold even more information in their minds as they show that they’re able to remember directions with multiple steps and remember two rules at the same time (“wipe your shoes on the mat outside, and then take your shoes and socks off at the door”). Children may also start to think ahead. You might notice this as you read together, when your child tells you what she thinks is going to happen next in the book.

Mari suggests these age-appropriate activities at around four years of age;

  • Help with making predictions and thinking ahead when you read together by asking children what happened and what they think might happen next.
  • Play simple board or card games to help develop critical-thinking skills.
  • As you go about your daily routines, you can ask children to predict next steps: “First we scrape the plates, then we put them in the soapy water. What do you think we do next?”

At five and six years old

When you notice children doing things like waiting 15 minutes for an activity to start instead of becoming agitated, it’s a sign that they’re able to delay gratification for longer periods of time. They may also be getting better at remembering rules where one thing depends on the other: “When we’re dressed and ready, we’ll go to play with our neighbours. If we take a little longer, we will go this afternoon instead.” 

Parents and caregivers can start the following around five and six years old;

  • Engage in activities that encourage trial and error, such as stacking and arranging objects for example, during household chores, or doing puzzles (with about six to ten pieces).
  • Play games in which rules switch (such as “Follow the Leader”) to help children learn to think flexibly.

“Stimulating and developing our children’s brains can be fun and enjoyable activities for parents, caregivers and children alike. It is important to encourage children to ask questions, be curious and discover new ideas and ways of doing things in our everyday activities,” concludes Payne.





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