Creating a Genuinely Stimulating Environment

As parents we pretty much unanimously agree on wanting our children's brains to grow and develop! We recognize that this will happen through play, but what more must we do to be sure that their play experience stimulates said growth/development?

Last night a grandmother asked me about some of her toddler grandson's needs. This woman is the childcare provider for her grandson (in her home) while his mother is at work. During our conversation, she led herself to wonder if perhaps he needs more than she can provide for him now that he is a mobile little guy with a greater need to explore than when he was 'younger'. 

Perhaps this little boy has reached a new stage of...need for 'more'...the need to be able to explore his world 'more' than what opportunities are currently providing him. I wonder if perhaps a little more cognitive, sensory, and physical challenge and stimulation are what this boy is seeking.

As I returned this morning to the book I've been inching my way through (Let Them Play by Jeff A Johnson and Denita Dinger), I read the following in a section on "Thoughtful STIMULATION"

"Environments with too many predictable features tend to reduce the neural activity in the brain," writes Nikki Darling-Kuria in Brain-Based Early Leraning Activities: Connecting Theory and Practice. "When the environment is challenging, a child's brain will continue to make new and more concrete connections. When we get used to certain patterns in our environment, we become less challenged." (2010, 33) On the other hand, too much unpredictability can have negative developmental effects. Physical environments that offer thoughtful stimulation more fully engage the busy and curious minds of young children and lead to more play-based learning.

Tips for creating opportunities for thoughtful stimulation:

-Shun screen time. Plenty of evidence shows that sitting in front of televisions and other screens hinders learning. Even a pile of empty cardboard boxes, scissors, and a few rolls of masking tape provide more interactive and developmentally appropriate ways to stimulate learning in young children.

-Implement a battery-free zone. Screen time is a big source of overstimulation, but there are others too. Consider all the electronic learning toys that whiz, whistle, and whirr. The sounds and flashing lights these gadgets make are sometimes the only interesting things about them. Kids get bored with them quickly, and the toys end up going unused. (Or the kids find creative but sometimes inappropriate ways to use them.) Avoid overstimulation by implementing a batter-free toy policy in your early learning environment.

-Think about color. Bright primary colors are not necessarily the most appropriate choice for walls and furnishings in an early learning program. Loud colors can overload the senses and influence behaviors. You are responsible for the whole feel of your physical space. Neutral walls with rich but subdued splashes of colors throughout the environment may provide stimulation that is more appropriate.

Now I may have lost some of you due to the above exerpt's use of the term "your early learning environment" and "early learning program." I hope not!

If you have young children of your own, your home is an early learning environment/program. 

This piece speaks to the need for the children for thoughtful stimulation. All of our children deserve to have their minds challenged but not overloaded. I hope that this exerpt serves as a thought-provoking check for you to evaluate whether the child/children in your care are receiving that type of experience while in your care...whether they are your own children or children you are caring for in their parents' absence!

So...non-screen, non-battery-powered, non-crazy-colored play? What does that look like exactly?

I'll say this. Keep it simple and don't overthink. What are some of the things you have around that you could allow children to explore? could you set up opportunities inside and outside for them to explore water? dish-tubs of water? water table? ice (blocks, cubes, etc)? hoses?

-earth...digging space in dirt? sandbox? could you create a temporary sandbox indoors via a tub of sand?

-bubbles...big tubs of them? old-school little plastic jars of bubbles? dish soap in tub before adding water to make it bubble over top for play?

If you'd like, you could take a scroll down through our photos and pull out one of the activities we've done with our preschool children. Feel free to ask if you're curious about tips on execution!