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How Babies and Toddlers Will Continue to Learn Amid COVID-19

Learning doesn’t take time off, even for a pandemic.

Key points

  • Parents may be worried about how so much time at home is affecting babies' and toddlers' developing brains.
  • Babies and toddlers don’t need any particular type of environment to learn, and caregivers can continue to foster their child's healthy development at home.
  • Babies and toddlers who interact regularly with their primary caregivers in loving and supportive ways will continue to learn.
  • Some tips for encouraging learning at home include reducing stress, reading books, singing, engaging the senses and counting or talking about numbers and shapes.

After a year of isolation and quarantine, plenty of parents are justifiably worried about their older children or teens "falling behind” in school, but what about parents of babies and toddlers who hadn’t yet started school?

They may be feeling just as worried about how all this time at home or out of typical community settings is affecting their children’s rapidly developing brains.

If age 3 is “middle age” for brain development, as Dr. Jack Shonkoff has said, then what to do about the fact that half of a 2-year-old’s life has been spent living mostly at home, in a pandemic?

Sergey Novikov/Shutterstock
Source: Sergey Novikov/Shutterstock

Young children, especially during the first few years of life, are like sponges when it comes to learning—they soak everything up. What happens when babies and toddlers don’t get to spend time in their regular environments?

Whether it’s child care, recurring visits with extended family, or time on the playground with peers, many young children are not getting the same variety of learning opportunities as usual.

However, there’s good news! Because babies and toddlers learn through a serve and return process, they don’t need any particular type of environment, or even a specific variety of environments, to be learning.

Tips and Strategies to Support Learning

In fact, there are many tips and strategies to encourage and enhance learning in the youngest family members, even if it all happens at home:

  1. Work to reduce everyone’s stress. In order to reduce child stress, it is paramount for caregivers to keep tabs on their stress because it can be contagious. Reducing adult stress will reduce baby and toddler stress. And when babies and toddlers are less stressed, they learn better. When parents and caregivers self-regulate or ask for help when stress can’t be avoided, they are also modeling an important social-emotional skill that babies will learn through example.
  2. Read books often. Even though babies and toddlers may seem distracted during book time, it’s important to keep reading aloud and letting them see, touch—and yes, chew on—books. Even reading the same few books over and over is fun for babies and toddlers, and full of learning opportunities.
  3. Talk about what is happening throughout the day. When babies and toddlers hear caregivers talking, it exposes them to the sounds, words, tones, and cadence of the language they will eventually learn. What is being said is far less important than the fact that someone is talking (as long as the content and tone are baby-friendly!). Caregivers can ask baby rhetorical questions, tell a story, or just “sportscast” what is happening around the house.
  4. Sing and play music. It can be fun for everyone to listen to different types of music and sing along. Young children don’t mind at all if your pitch isn’t perfect—sing anyway. Anything that rhymes is usually a hit. Dancing is socially engaging, improves gross motor skills, and enhances proprioception (body awareness).
  5. Engage the senses. You don’t need a fancy sensory table to achieve this. A small, flat container full of soap bubbles or cornstarch and water will do. Add a drop of a child-safe scent (essential oil, vanilla) for an added dimension. Good old fingerpaint, play dough, or other toddler-safe art supplies are also usually a hit. A bath can often be a calming, fun sensory experience too, if available.
  6. Count and talk about numbers and shapes. Make number talk part of your regular day. Simply counting stairs whenever you go up or down them, talking about how many eyes, ears, fingers, and toes baby has, or holding up with your fingers how many pieces of fruit they can have, lays the groundwork for later number knowledge. Pointing out the shape of things is easy to do and doesn’t require any special materials. You can note that the tire is a round circle, the window is a rectangle, and the cracker is a square.
  7. Take advantage of your child’s curiosity. Young children are like little scientists. Don’t underestimate how much learning happens during exploratory free play! Children discover so many concepts through experimentation. Even things that are frustrating for adults, such as a baby dropping a cup from their highchair over and over, are part of their learning cause and effect.

While some families have returned to some semblance of “normal,” many are still living in relative isolation. As the country looks toward increased COVID-19 vaccinations for adults, children will be able to see more of their outside caregivers and extended family members.

In the meantime, rest assured that babies and toddlers who interact regularly with their primary caregivers in loving and supportive ways, with serve and return moments throughout the day, are still learning a lot.

Their brains really are like little recording devices, always on.

Sarah MacLaughlin, LSW, contributed to this post. Sarah is a social worker, parent educator, and author of the award-winning, bestselling book, What Not to Say: Tools for Talking With Young Children.

References

Gopnik, A., Meltzoff, A.N., & Kuhl, P.K. The Scientist In The Crib: Minds, Brains, And How Children Learn. HarperCollins

Murray, J. (2018). The play’s the thing. International Journal of Early Years Education, 26(4), 335-339. https://doi.org/10.1080/09669760.2018.1527278

Using Their Words: How Helping Preschoolers Get a Good Start in Reading and Learning. (2009 November 2). Retrieved from: https://www.healthychildren.org/English/ages-stages/preschool/Pages/Usi…

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