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Brain Development in Children

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1 Year Old: The Impersonator

Milestone: Copycatting

What You're Seeing: “My favorite is when my son picks up my cell phone and babbles into it. He pauses and listens so intently I sometimes wonder if he's really got someone on the line.” —Michelle Stewart, Brooklyn, NY

Why? “While babies imitate your facial expressions from birth, around the first birthday they start to ‘imitate with intent.’ They use objects around them to copycat,” says Laura Rubin, Ph.D., a pediatric neuropsychologist at the Portsmouth Neuropsychology Center in Portsmouth, NH. Your little one's frontal and parietal lobes, the parts of the brain that help bolster language and social skills, are in a growth spurt. Plus, “the exploring that comes with crawling and walking develops those parts of the brain, too,” says Alison Gopnik, Ph.D., professor of psychology at the University of California, Berkeley and author of The Philosophical Baby. You'll first see your child pretend to stir a pot with a wooden spoon, instead of just hitting the floor with it. “And by about fifteen to eighteen months, he'll be using that spoon as a microphone,” says Gopnik. “Imitation is the bridge to pretend play.”

Help Him Along: Break the TV-as-background-noise habit. The average American child is exposed to nearly four hours of such indirect TV daily, notes a new study in Pediatrics. It disrupts toddlers' play, even when it's a grown-up show, according to research in Child Development. And once you silence Anderson Cooper, don't feel the need to bombard your child with educational thingamajigs. “Right now, they simply want to throw themselves into all the fun stuff Mom and Dad are doing. They don't need to be ‘taught’ with any formal learning tools,” insists Gopnik.

2 Years Old: The Rogue

Milestone: Independent Thinking

What You're Seeing: “My twins insist on buckling their car seats themselves—‘I do it! I do it!’—and throw enormous fits if I try to help. It's making me nuts.” —Eileen Brackenbury, Wellesley Hills, MA

Why: “Now having language at their disposal lets them explore and learn that much more,” says Gopnik. And all of that yip-yapping leads into your kiddo's new independent spirit. “Now she starts to sense she is a separate entity from her parents. She can do things herself! She's not totally dependent on you! She wants to—and now can—express that excitement with words,” says Gopnik. A factor feeding into the frustrated tantrums: You still don't understand everything she says—and strangers can decipher only about 50 percent of a 2-year-old's words.

Help Her Along: “Your strong-willed tot may not want to sit in your lap for a book, but don't stop reading,” says Dr. Nyp. “It's critical for improving language skills, of course, but also, children who are read to frequently associate a warm, positive feeling with books that carries over to learning in general.” Work with your child's stubborn streak. Let her pick the book, then allow her to go ahead and continue playing while you read. “You know how background TV may impact kids negatively? Background reading does the opposite,” says Dr. Nyp.