The first years of a child's life are the most critical for their cognitive development, and for creating those formative bonds between children and parents.
In fact, a child’s brain undergoes an astonishing period of development from birth to age 3 – creating more than a million neural connections per second. And that growth continues to build at a remarkable rate until around age 5. That’s why it’s important to talk, listen, read, sing and play games with young children.
Whether it’s a simple part of the daily routine like singing a song during diaper changes, or an intentional activity like reading books before bed – all of these little moments count. They teach children important communication skills, foster emotional well-being, and help form trusted bonds with caregivers.
We have tips for the best ways to engage and connect with your little one based on their age and their needs during each stage of early development.
Connecting with your 0 to 12-month-old
Kids start developing communication skills from the moment they’re born. A newborn baby's brain is about one-third the size of an adult's, but within 90 days, it more than doubles its volume, reaching 55% of its final size.
Newborns quickly start to recognize important sounds in their environment, such as their parents’ voices. And as they grow, babies begin to recognize the sounds that form language, such as the way syllables, words and sentences work.
According to child development experts and pediatricians, these are the best ways to connect with your 0 to 12-month-old.
Listen to your baby
A baby’s babble is their way of communicating. Don’t ignore it! Turn to look at them and make eye contact. Respond to their sounds by mimicking it back to them and have real conversations. This exchange is what researchers at Harvard University coined Serve and Return, and it’s critical for healthy brain development.
Fun fact: Babies can dance before they can walk or talk. Infants and toddlers benefit from moving to the rhythm of music. Turn up the music and hold them as you dance around. Shake your arms to the music and see if they follow. When your child is listening for sound and paying attention to your movements, essential reading skills are developing.
Play with toys together or become your child’s favorite toy. One idea for a fun game is to grab whatever is nearby, a blanket or a book, and use it to play peek-a-boo. Hide behind the toy, say “peek-a-boo,” and then let them be the hider. This teaches babies an important lesson about object permanence – that you exist even when they can’t see you.
Talk to your little one
Talking to babies isn’t just great for their development, it’s also a great way to encourage infants to bond with their parents. Talk to your baby about mundane, everyday things. Tell them what the weather is like or what you had for lunch. Describe what you see as you’re driving around or narrate what you’re going to do as you take a bath and get pajamas on. You’re building their vocabulary and communication skills.
Demonstrate emotions and expressions
Children experience emotions, too. Mirror the emotions they’re feeling by making faces. Talk to them while you do this, so they learn to associate words with emotions. Have conversations with just your expressions. These “conversations without words” will help them read and understand other people. And when they’re going through hard emotions, engaging with them in this way can validate their feelings and begin the early stages of learning empathy.
Read to your child
It’s never too early to start reading to your child. In fact, reading to newborns and babies is shown to boost brain and language development. It stimulates their imagination, helps them learn about the world, and gives them exposure to different emotions. Research shows that reading to children every day is one of the best ways parents can support their language development and set kids up for academic success. Reading is important for babies, and it becomes even more so as children grow older and begin to learn about the world around them.
Connecting with your 1 to 2-year-old
Even though preschool and kindergarten are traditionally seen as the start of a child’s “formal” education, you are your child’s first and most important teacher. Luckily, you don’t need a lesson plan. As simple as it sounds, every activity, from doing the dishes to reading a bedtime story, can be a learning moment.
At this age, kids are learning to pick up sounds and make connections in their brain. Essential reading, thinking and learning skills are developing. So, keep talking to them and keep moving with them. Here are some of the best ways to engage with your 1 to 2-year-old.
Sing your child’s favorite song, using their name when possible. Encourage them to sing along or dance. Music and movement activities encourage cooperative play, listening and turn-taking. The more sound they hear, the more they will appreciate language.
Play in new ways
Use everyday objects as toys and let them watch as you play. Cover their toys with a blanket and say “bye-bye.” Take the blanket off and say “hello.” Repeat and let them follow. Your child is figuring out the idea that things exist, even when they’re out of sight – a truly essential skill that develops through the years. They’re also learning to build their memory and hold pictures of objects in their mind.
Explore textures and materials
Let them play with a dry sponge while you do the dishes. The texture is a new sensation, so ask them how they feel about it. New experiences help build connections in their brain, which is the foundation for reading and math skills. Check out ideas for sensory play and sensory art projects. Finger painting is a great sensory art project. Or if you want to avoid the mess, put different colored paints into a plastic baggie and let your child move the paints around and make designs with their hands.
Turn chores into play time. While you’re doing dishes, you can show them a dirty dish and say “yuck” with a funny face. Make them giggle and use a new word with each new dish. Come up with funny words and let them create their own. The tone of your voice, facial expressions, body movements and words are all helping them build communication skills.
Connecting with your 2 to 3-year-old
When it comes to learning and stimulation, adults should be part of the fun. While it’s great to have a variety of interesting, colorful playthings at home, the very best “toy” for your toddler is you. Talking, reading and singing are the most impactful activities you can do with your child, and they don’t cost a thing – or take up any space in the toy box. Sort laundry colors, match up socks and make shapes out of folding towels. Clang kitchen utensils together to make “music” and sing a song as you set the table for dinner.
Toddlers are learning to explore the world at this stage. Involve them in your everyday routine, so they develop a necessary understanding of how the world works. The opportunities are endless.
Engage with your child
Let your child help you empty your pockets at night. Take out safe objects one at a time, telling them a story behind the object – where it came from and how you used it during the day. The world outside is a mystery that your child is learning to explore, so share happy stories. You’re helping your child learn about your awesome adult world, and also helping them build an everyday vocabulary.
Incorporate conversation into everyday activities. When you’re brushing or combing their hair, talk to them about how it compares to their friends’ or family members’ hair. Ask questions and encourage them to talk about their observations. Conversations like these help children pay attention to what they see, use their memory and group things into categories.
Sing to build memory
Listening is an important skill that is developing at this stage, so sing their favorite songs and let them join in. Clap, dance and make music together. With each new season of the year, teach them songs for the holidays you celebrate at those times. Remembering words and tunes helps build strong memory.
Build and learn
Use household objects to construct new things with your child. You can use things like couch pillows and blankets to make forts, or cups and food storage containers to build towers. Take turns building and knocking things down. Doing this together helps your child discover new connections. They’ll learn how the physical world works and begin to understand consequences (such as, “When I push the tower, it falls down.”)
When you’re doing laundry, let them touch the textures of the fabrics and ask them what it reminds them of, or what else feels that way. See if they have any ideas for how to make a blanket into a cape. This helps children use their senses to understand their surroundings.
It’s also important for kids to explore outside. Spending time in nature has been shown to have positive effects on our physical and mental health, and kids may benefit even more than other age groups. In fact, nature can help children learn a multitude of things while also feeling more connected to the world around them. But remember: Always supervise your child outside to help prevent accidents and injuries.
You’ve probably heard the phrase “kids are like sponges,” when it comes to early learning. It’s true, and scientific research makes it clear that a child’s brain develops in very important ways during the first five years of life. Exercising your child’s brain in these early years is like strength training for the mind. By talking, reading and singing, you’re helping to build connections in the brain that will affect your child’s life forever.
At this stage, kids begin to form reason and start building concepts of how and why things work. Their reasons may be silly, and they’re often adorable. But it’s important for you to listen and help explain why things are the way they are.
Explore and reason together
When your child is getting dressed, pick out their pants and ask them to find a shirt that matches. Notice what they pick, and if they choose to match by pattern, color or size. If it doesn’t make sense, explain why. But you can also let them wear silly outfits every now and then to support their self-expression and build independence.
Demonstrate and explain
Show your child how to turn the light switch on and off. Say “on” and “off” and see if they can match your words. Take turns giving and taking directions. This helps kids learn the essential concept of cause and effect.
There are so many ways to be silly together, and making space for silliness and laughter is important for kids. It allows them to express themselves freely, use their imagination, and having a break from structure can help them relax.
Pretend to chase one another or make up a new game or silly language. Play with toys and have the characters do and say silly things that make you both laugh. Another great way to let loose is by dancing to your favorite music and letting your child pick songs. Shake a leg and wiggle your hips – let the music inspire goofy new dance moves.
Connecting with your 4 to 5-year-old
By the age of 5, your child’s brain will have grown to 90% of its adult size. You can begin to mentally challenge your child at this stage. Continue to involve them in everyday activities and try to be creative to keep them interested in learning. In moderation, healthy screen time use alongside a parent can be a new and exciting way to learn. Keep up with their development by incorporating age-appropriate activities that are not only fun, but also educational.
Ask questions throughout the day, and let your child form their own answers. Aim for 20 questions a day to help keep them engaged. When they ask you questions, which begins to happen more frequently at this age, focus your attention on them and give your best answer. If you don’t know the answer, it’s perfectly fine to say as much, and it can be fun to look up the answer together. When your child asks a question, praise them for being so clever or so interested in how things work.
Begin to challenge your child
Instead of simply doing things for them, challenge your child to find their own answers. If they’re dressing up, ask questions like, “Can you find the clothes you wear on your legs?” This will help them exercise their working memory. Presenting the same information in different ways helps build brain development.
Similarly, if they ask a question, you can challenge them to think of an answer on their own. If they ask, “Why do people need to wear shoes?” You can respond, “Why do you think people need to wear shoes?” The challenge of finding the answer themselves builds reasoning skills and stimulates confidence and independence.
Play in different ways
Balance play time between games that lead to healthy physical activity and games that involve brain exercise, like a scavenger hunt. Ask your child questions like, “How many things in the room are blue?” and, “How many objects start with the letter T?” Teach them to be aware of their environment and to connect similar things. Change things up by using letters, colors and shapes.
Engage and include
Continue to make chores fun. When you’re doing laundry, ask them to sort clothes by color – then ask them to sort them by pattern and by size. Changing the rules helps them think flexibly and sparks creativity. Encourage your child to cook with you. Cooking together teaches them important life skills, including kitchen safety and how to make nutritious meals – they may even be more likely to try new things. Let them build an instrument using a plastic container with things like uncooked beans, or keys and spoons inside. Music activities with toddlers help them learn. Try creating a rhythm and asking them to copy it, then dancing to the tunes you make together.
Let your child taste a few grains of salt and sugar. Which one do they like? Talk about the difference. Discover different textures, too. One way to do this is by putting different foods into bowls, then blindfolding your child and asking them to guess what’s in each bowl by touch. They’re learning to explore their senses at this stage, so let them experiment!
Learn more about supporting your child’s development
Your child’s doctor or clinician is an excellent resource when you have questions about your child’s development or need more ideas for engaging with your little one. Because they know you and your child, they can give you personalized recommendations, help answer your questions and give you peace of mind.
You can also learn more by checking out our resources for supporting early child development. Promoting early brain development is part of the HealthPartners Children’s Health Initiative, which is aimed at improving the health and well-being of children from pregnancy through age five.
Brain, cognitive and behavioral development early in life are strongly linked to health outcomes later in life, including cardiovascular disease and stroke, high blood pressure, diabetes, obesity, smoking, drug use and depression.