The Big Boys in Child’s Play

Child development fascinates me, especially cognitive development and brain research. If you let me, I can go on and on about how children grow and learn and slip into a detailed monologue about different child development philosophies. I don’t know if those things fascinate you like they do me, but as a parent of a little one, whether you realize it or not, those philosophies play out every minute of every day of your child’s life.

lightstock_372786_medium_jeremy.jpgAs a parent of an active baby or busy toddler you don’t have time for an in depth philosophical study. Besides, any theory is only as good as its application. You live in the real world. You barely have time to answer emails, pour a cup of coffee, or take a shower!

So, I’ll avoid the lengthy lecture, and summarize a couple of the the most common and widely accepted child development philosophies. Along the way I’ll also talk about how this plays out in my practice and give you some tips for applying these theories with your child. Let’s focus on the two big boys in child development and psychology: Jean Piaget and Lev Vygotsky.

Jean Piaget’s Stages

Piaget’s most famous contribution to child development is what he called Developmental Stage Theory (let’s call it DST, to make it easy).  According to DST, cognitive development is divided into four stages. The first, from birth to age two, is the Sensorimotor Stage. It’s a long title, but it really sums up what Piaget was getting at: at this stage learning is tied directly to activity. In other words, children at this stage are active learners. If you’ve ever seen a class full of toddlers, then you’ve understand active!

Active learning is most effective when experiences are varied, because when experiences are varied discovery happens. Every new experience is a learning experience; it’s a chance to receive new information. This  happens in a variety of ways. Let’s look at them.

Exploratory Play

This is especially applicable to babies because they naturally move from simple reflexes to more repetitive, coordinated, and complex  responses. Babies come prewired to sleep, suck and cry. But, more coordinated responses to their environment fully develop thorough  play opportunities and repetition.

In my practice, I promote these responses through very simple activities. Encouraging a baby to reach for dangling ring or bat at toys on a simple activity mat, shaking a rattle, holding toys with both hands or letting them put (safely sized) toys to their mouths.

At home you can work on this simply by putting your baby in different positions throughout the day. Always place your baby on her back to sleep and for small parts of the day for play. Focus on having tummy time and side-lying. As much as you can, limit time in containers like swings, car seats, excer-saucers. Allow time to practice handling toys, bringing them to midline, getting them into the mouth. Set books and simple pictures with lots of contrasting colors for them to look at. A baby mirror is an awesome way to engage your baby in different positions. Your child will also build different muscles in each position which will help when the time comes to start rolling over, sitting up, and crawling.

Object Permanence

Does your little one cry every time you leave the room? If so, it probably breaks your heart or drives you crazy (or both!). But, you can breathe easy; that crying is just a sign this cognitive skill is emerging. She’s telling you, although she can’t see you, she knows you’re near, she really likes you, and she’s crying because she doesn’t just want you near. She wants you here, with her where she can see you.

In my practice I see parents become frustrated at this stage of development. I encourage them (and you) to see these as good signs! Your baby’s brain is growing, she’s learning. What you and I find exhausting means she’s becoming a lot smarter than she was last week.

At home you can encourage these skills with very simple games. Hide a snack in your fist or a toy under blanket. Start by leaving a small portion of the hidden object exposed, but as she becomes more proficient begin hiding the entire object. Nesting buckets are a great toy for developing object permanence. And, this is also a great time to introduce Peek-a-Boo. You’ll get tired of it before she does, but it’s a really portable game.

Cause and Effect

When a baby hits or pulls or just bumps a toy and the toy makes a pleasant (or not so pleasant) noise and then he does it again. And again. And again… He’s just discovered cause and effect. You and I take this for granted, but when he realizes he made that thing happen— whatever that happening was —  its new to him and he’s figuring how it works.

In my practice parents often express frustration over a new found obsession with turning on light switches, opening and closing doors, or operating remote controls. I reassure them that their little one is just  working to understand cause and effect.

At your house, does he throw his bottle or cup on the floor only to see if you’re going to pick it up (like you have done 300 times before)? It’s okay. Console yourself with the knowledge this just more proof his brain is growing! But, also provide other (less frustrating) opportunities during the day to practice cause and effect. Simple cause effect toys to start with are simple rattles, musical toys. If he’s learned to sit up, try this activity box with animals that pop up  or more complex cause/effect toys like this simple ball toy or ramp. To even bump up the learning for toddlers I love this Gum Ball machine which teaches cause and effect plus they must sequence several steps to get the balls out.

Symbolic Play 

This is where pretend play begins to emerge. At first toddlers imitate parents. They might imitate household chores. They’ll ask for a cloth to wipe off the table or try to sweep or vacuum the floor.

I encourage parents to let them participate whenever possible. By mimicking you they’ll begin to develop more mature play skills, as they graduate from pure copycat behaviors to more self-directed mimicry like pushing a doll in stroller or sharing a snack with a teddy bear. (There are also the first hints of more interactive play skills)

At home this is a great time to introduce Little People house or farm, Blocks (soft for baby and move up to hard ones as they get older), Baby dolls. As their pretend play begins to mature even more they will begin to pretend things are different than reality such as a napkin is a blanket, a stick is a spoon, a mega block becomes a cup.  Though, if the idea of your toddler wielding a full size broom or clanging your nice pots and pans freaks you out, then get them their own kid sized broom,  kitchen and lawn mower.

Lev Vygotsky’s Culture History

Vygostsky’s Cultural Historical Theory (CHT, for short) emphasizes the impact of social interactions on child development, generally, and speech development, specifically. He believed a child’s primary care giver provided the child with scaffolding they could use to learn through problem solving.

I can’t overstate my agreement with Vygotsky’s CHT model. I often model for parents ways they can give just enough help, while leaving as much of the work for the child as she can handle so that the success (and development) is really hers. (And, what she can handle is usually a lot more than most parents think.) Its important to allow a child to struggle, because learning happens in the struggle.

I encourage parents to avoid rushing to the “rescue” because they’re really robbing their little one of a learning opportunity. Instead, wait and watch for cues the child is beginning to get genuinely frustrated, then ask her if she wants your help. Don’t just intervene, she’s just like you and me. Sometimes you want help, other times you just want to know someone’s willing to help, and you never want anyone to just push you aside and take over. When we do they hear the message loud and clear: You can’t do these things.

An important first phrase for toddlers is “Help me!” This provides them with the ability to have a plan (and retain some sense of control) when they become frustrated. Think of all the learning  going on in a single interaction: language, self-regulation, interpersonal skills, and problem solving.

You may have noticed I referenced a few toys in this post. I’ll actually be posting a series soon called A Few of My Favorite Things. In that series I’ll be reviewing and recommending some of my favorite toys. But, it’s not a run of the mill toy review. I’ll provide you with a list of great toys, but I’ll also identify the skills you can target with the toy,  the appropriate developmental level for the toy, and, where possible, ideas to use the  toy that might not be obvious.

I hope you’ll join me!

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