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12 Fun Baby Learning Games

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Yes, we're grateful for healthy, happy babies. But don't we all want our kids to be brilliant too? I do. I'm not talking about the level of genius that lands national talk-show appearances or gains early admission to Harvard. I'd just like my boys to be blessed with brains that let them breeze easily through life: little struggle, lots of opportunity.

As it turns out, we parents have a hand in making that happen — and not just in the genes we pass along. Science clearly shows that baby's brain development depends, largely, on his early experiences and not experiences with fancy DVDs or brain-enhancing toys. “You are the best toy in the room,” says Gina Lebedeva Ph.D., director of translation, out-reach and education at the University of Washington's Institute for Learning & Brain Sciences. “Our brains have evolved to learn from other brains.”

Simply engaging with baby in positive, everyday ways helps her build the trillions (yes, trillions!) of brain connections that lead to language development, problem-solving skills and the emotional IQ that's so important for getting along — and ahead! — in the world. But if it feels like school, you're trying too hard. The key is to have fun with your little one as you help her to see — and hear, smell, feel and taste — how incredibly interesting everything around her is. Try these 12 easy and fun baby learning activities you can use on the go and during snacktime or playtime.

When you're out and about …

play tour guide Narrating your day helps baby pair words with what he's seeing, says Kathy Gruhn, a speech-language pathologist and author of My Baby Compass. Speak slowly, simply and in that higher-pitched “child-directed speech” that slips out naturally (research shows it enhances baby's learning). Feel ridiculous talking to yourself? Don't, because you're not. Months before they talk, babies understand much of what you're saying and may even start making incredible connections. Take it from Hillary Homzie, a mother of three boys in Napa, California. “When my oldest was 6 months old, I got a job writing a travel book on Philadelphia and took my son on my trips — to the aquarium, the insect museum, the Italian market,” says Homzie. “I narrated everything. At 14 months, he pointed to pasta at a farmer's market and said ‘money noodles.’ I realized I'd told him about penne: ‘penny’ ‘money.’”

help him take it all in If you're on a walk and hear a dog, ask your baby, “What do you hear?” suggests Gruhn. Then give the answer: “Dog. Bark. Ruff! Ruff!” Do this every time you encounter a barking dog and your child will probably start answering with the sound (Ruff! Ruff!), says Gruhn. Eventually, he'll refine his response to “dog.” Try a similar approach to teach him about physical sensations. If it starts drizzling while you're out, before you run for cover, let him experience the mist on his face. He won't melt. Say, “Feel the rain. Rain. Wet.” Then cover the stroller and hustle home.

be polite and engaging Smiling and waving to the man bagging your groceries not only teaches baby cause and effect (he smiles and waves back), it also helps develop baby's social IQ. “Children watch you for cues on how to interpret a situation,” says Claire Lerner, director of parenting resources for Zero to Three, a Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit that promotes the health and development of infants and toddlers. “Waving and smiling are friendly things you do when you see someone you like.” You don't have to parade around town like a politician, just remember that your little one is watching and learning from every interaction.

keep some things constant Babies' brains process new information most efficiently when they're in familiar surroundings, says Lebedeva. “Then, the brain can go into autopilot and take in only the new details,” she says. Try variations on common themes. For instance, go for a walk every day at the same time but switch up your route. “There is a predictability in our near-daily walk that is very reassuring to my son,” says Meg McElwee, mother of two in Durham, North Carolina. “He delights in seeing the neighborhood cats. It must be fascinating for a baby to realize that there are so many different cats, to begin to understand ‘cat' as a category.”

At Snacktime …

initiate a two-way conversation Giving your child a chance to respond — even with a smile — is important. “What a child gets from that,” says Lebedeva, “is ‘Wow, what I have to say is important.’” It also teaches the concept of give-and-take. Reinforce the idea of reciprocity by playing back-and-forth with a spoon or cup: You ask for it by name, she gives it you, you thank her and give it back.

supplement with signs Sign language offers a visual cue (concrete) to spoken word (abstract). Plus, “There are about 80 muscles in the mouth and face that need to develop before you can speak,” says Gruhn. “It takes at least a year for those muscles to develop, whereas the muscles needed to make a simple sign develop pretty quickly.” At 1 year, my son can't say “milk,” but he can sign it and point to his cup. When I sign and say “milk” back then give him the cup filled with it, he laughs and claps, clearly psyched to have gotten his point across. Other useful signs to try: please, thank you, more, all done. Learn these simple signs and others atbabysignlanguage.com.

incorporate counting As early as 4 1/2 months, babies have a “number sense” that allows them to notice changes in the number of objects in front of them, according to research out of Harvard University. Count out Cheerios or peas as you place them in a line on his tray. As he nears 2, show him how to categorize food by color. When her children were about that age, Donna Kaplan, a mother of three in Albuquerque, New Mexico, started showing her children how to sort a small handful of M&Ms. If you keep candy off-limits, try this with colored Goldfish crackers.

let her finger-paint with yogurt When she tosses her cup to the floor, say, “Oops, you threw it down,” and, as you lift it, say, “So we have to pick it up.” Getting messy and tossing things around is how babies learn. “You're looking at a little scientist,” says Lebedeva. “Scientists ask, ‘What will happen if … ?’” Your little one isn't just testing what will to happen to the beans when she bombs them to the floor but also how you'll react. Before you correct her, ask yourself: Is this rule (such as “no playing with your food”) really necessary? Research shows when parents say things like “don't” or “no,” baby's language is slower to develop because “these commands inhibit exploration,” says Lebedeva.

During playtime …

hands on, hands off Show him how a toy works, then back off. “When you see your child struggling, resist the urge to fix the situation,” says Mendel Klein, a pediatric occupational therapist in New York City and father of a preschooler. “Eventually, he'll figure out that the cup is smaller than the pot. He'll also learn that, with effort, he can solve problems.” If he's really frustrated, offer emotional support, suggests Lerner. Acknowledge that it's hard, applaud his effort then help guide him to a solution.

expand your idea of “educational” toys and games Yes, shape sorters teach spatial reasoning and problem-solving; so does letting him figure out how to retrieve the ball that rolled under the couch. You don't need to buy brain-boosting toys, says Lerner. Maria Brown of Washington, D.C., knows this well, as her 14-month-old's favorite toys are wooden clothespins and a empty tissue box. “He puts the pins in the box and the plastic insert at the top prevents them from falling out,” says Brown. “Sometimes he reaches in and pulls the clothespins back out. Other times, he picks up the box and shakes away — a homemade maraca!”

turn on the tunes Some research suggests that, from birth, babies respond to the rhythm and tempo of music and may even find it more engaging than speech. “I love to sing and dance while holding [my 1-year-old daughter],” says Jill Neville of Millersburg, Ohio. “Her giggles are priceless, and seeing her start shaking her head or wiggling to the rhythms cracks us up.” The sheer joy of singing and dancing together is what makes these activities so magical for brain development, says Lebedeva.

have fun “With all of the focus on brain development, some parents have turned play into an academic exercise,” says Lerner. “They're so goal-driven that they don't enjoy it. Kids pick up on this.” It's stressful for everyone, and it squashes the curiosity and confidence-building crucial to learning. Let baby take the lead during playtime. If he's bored with books but obsessed with the dog's water, give him his own bowl and let him splash outside on the deck. “Play should be totally pleasurable,” says Lerner.

Plus: 5 More Ways to Boost Your Baby's Learning

Big Boost #1: Prioritize Naptime

To retain and apply new information, babies need to sleep after hearing it.

Big Boost #2: Read to Your Little One

It enhances vocabulary, attention span and creativity. Learn more on p. 12.

Big Boost #3: Nurse Your Baby

Breast milk contains DHA, an omega-3 fatty acid that helps babies’ brain development.

Big Boost #4: Turn Off the TV

When the TV is on, adults spend about 20 percent less time talking to their children, which may impact academic performance later on.

Big Boost #5: Embrace Bilingualism

Keeping the language "channels" separate in the brain by knowing which one to use when helps develop cognitive flexibility.

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