Did you know that brain growth occurs most rapidly from birth to age 3? Early brain development is a fascinating area!
Unsurprisingly, infancy is a period of great change within the brain as it builds connections or ‘synapses’, between its neurons. This is particularly important for cognitive development, as neurons are the ‘working units’ of the brain and the synapses have the important job of carrying information to and from the neurons!
Learning Through the Senses
Though early stages of development are of course affected by genetic factors, genes are not the only influence on the developing brain! Children are constantly growing and learning through the stimulation provided in their physical and social environments – and synapses are created and strengthened through stimulation from the infant and toddler’s sensory experiences.
Therefore, infants and toddlers need the opportunity to participate in a world filled with opportunities for sensory experiences! The brain learns about the external world through the sensory system, including: sight, hearing, smell, touch and taste. Repeated sensory stimulation strengthens the brain’s connections, which supports learning and development of our cognitive skills such perception, memory and attention!
Encouraging Sensory Stimulation Through Toys
Major studies looking at the characteristics of infant and toddler homes (where the foundation of learning and development often occurs), consistently support the idea that the availability of stimulating play materials and opportunities for sensory stimulation predicts future mental behaviour and supports better early brain development.
With this in mind, choosing toys to create opportunities for sensory stimulation through play at home is incredibly important! Here are some tips to help choose the most appropriate toys for your child’s early brain development:
- Visuals: Children have a predisposition towards beauty. Aesthetics are important for engaging children with toys – colours, simple designs, clean lines and subtle features are great!
- Touch: Touch is an important aspect of development from birth. Infants and toddlers use their sense of touch to learn about the world around them. Materials should be light, easy to grasp and offer a variety of textures and temperatures. For example, wood is warm and inviting, while plastics tend to be cold.
- Sound: Infants enjoy producing sound effects with materials, and toys that create sounds through movement are a great way to encourage infants and toddlers to explore their toys. However, toddlers tend not to like loud or sudden noises – try to look for wooden materials, fabrics, and soft toys as they will absorb sound to reduce loud/sudden noises!
- Mouthing/Oral Sensory Stimulation: It is important to remember for younger infants that their primary mode of material exploration is through mouthing/oral sensory stimulation. Not only does this highlight the importance of reducing any risks around choking hazards (so thicker, larger materials are most suitable) – but, it’s important to consider hygiene and durability of materials! Plastics are easy to clean and disinfect, whilst fabric items can easily be laundered.
Finally, don’t forget that offering too many options at once can be overwhelming and compromise the child’s ability to explore the materials meaningfully. You may have a selection of sensory stimulating toys available, but try to offer one at a time to your child.
- Dionne-Dostie, E., Paquette, N., Lassonde, M., & Gallagher, A. (2015). Multisensory Integration and Child Neurodevelopment. Brain Sciences, 5(1), 32–57. http://doi.org/10.3390/brainsci5010032
- Gable, S. & Hunting, M. (2000). Nature, nurture and early brain development. http://extension.missouri.edu/publications/DisplayPub.aspx?P=GH6115
- Shabazian, A. N., & Soga, C. L. (2014). Making the right choice simple: Selecting materials for infants and toddlers. YC Young Children, 69(3), 60.
- Urban Child Institute. Baby’s Brain Begins Now: Conception to Age 3. http://www.urbanchildinstitute.org/why-0-3/baby-and-brain