Help Your Baby Learns By Exercising

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Exercise is a broad term covering everything from physical fitness, to performance of a skill, a lesson, even sheer exertion. The dictionary says it is first of all, an act of employing or putting into play, to use. Exercise for infants and toddlers is the way of life. They were born with bodies that involuntarily move, and brains that react to stimuli produced by sensations and experiences. In other words, while they don't make decisions based on reason, they do react to everyone and everything around them and they do make choices - not that vegetable again - no way, are you going to get me to eat that stuff, or that's enough of that toy - wham, onto the floor it crashes.

Exercise is therefore, a channel through which the baby learns about his world and the people in it. If the exercise has a purpose and an adult who assists in the performance of the exercise, then it is doubly important. Take the seven month old who is teething badly, fussy when awake, and on the brink of sitting up alone and crawling independently. A lot of complications are frustration, right? Let's put the baby on the floor in the crawling position, place a music box slightly out of reach, and watch. Within seconds the baby is crying, banging the floor with the palm of his hand, and looking to the walls or furniture for help. The goal is the music box, but the exercise is too hard to perform alone. Since the problems are made to be solved, mother kneels down beside the baby and places her hand against the bottom of the baby's feet, giving the child leverage and something firm against which to push. She tells the baby to push and shows him how. She repeats the action and talks softly but firmly - "You can get the toy yourself." While the words are not understood, the awareness of being close and touching is. Baby pushes, scoots ahead, mother repeats, baby repeats, and the exercise is soon completed as the infant grabs for the box which miraculously is producing a sound of its own. The mother did not get the toy for her baby, and hence can legitimately praise the baby for doing it himself.

What's the good word? This is a common expression, which has special meaning for parents and young, very young children. It seems that praise and the use of "good" words are a big success factor in motivating children to learn. This is probably no great shock to anyone who has worked with children of any age, but the facts now point to the necessity for infants and toddlers to hear the good word from the very beginning of life. I try to get mothers to respond to the completion of any task, any exercise, any self-learned activity by saying, "Good for you!" or "You did it right!" or "I like the way you did that!" Like everything we do, there is an awful lot of habit in all of us. So it's usually not too hard to get into the habit of saying something easy like, "Good for you!" instead of a nod, a grunt or an ugh-huh. After a bit, it just comes out. Praise. I would like to see adults praise their babies 100 times a day, both verbally and physically, long before the infant knows the meaning of the words. Babies do know the difference in the tone of a loved voice. It is hard to pay a compliment or utter praise in a hard, unfriendly voice. Babies know how you feel! Situations come up when the toddler gets way out of line and mother can see nothing good about any part of the scene. Tell the child what he did wrong. Say it. Be honest, "You spilled five glasses of milk today so far", "You messed your pants and you know better". Then engage the child in the process of recovery and reconstruction. If that works, then you legitimately can say a few (sometimes very few) words, which will make a success out of failure. Children do not learn by failing. They do learn to build on positive, good things they have accomplished in life. Could it be that success in school might hinge on a feeling of success cultivated and demonstrated at home?

The Problem of the Match

Once upon a time, there were three bears - well you know how that story goes - a young girl finds happiness and nourishment in a bowl of porridge which is not too hot, not too cold, but just right. What in the world does that have to do with helping your baby learn? A lot, if you transpose the bowls of porridge into play experiences, and that is what the problem of the match is all about. J. McV. Hunt isolated the problem, and basically it is this: children need play experiences which are not too difficult (produces frustration), not too easy (produces boredom), but just right for the age and experience of the individual child. This is not as difficult as it may seem if you, the parent, use your home and your routine and lifestyle as the child's classroom. Home is where your child spends the greatest majority of his time, and where he is constantly under your eyes and feet. Home is where play materials are available at no cost, and hence, what is too hard or too easy can be returned to the kitchen cupboard, or the clothes closet and forgotten. The key to finding the right task at the right time is to watch your toddler or infant. Observe what he chooses to mess with, and set exercise and activity within that area - for that day. A tin pie plate and small blocks will do to illustrate. Let's suppose your baby is 18 months old. Merely putting the blocks in the plate is too easy for him - he throws the whole thing all over the floor. Placing the blocks in a circle around the perimeter (a circle means nothing to him) of the plate creating a circle is too hard - he can't concentrate that long. But, putting the blocks in a bowl and covering them up with the pie plate is just right. He is fascinated by the combination of materials and shapes - he shakes the bowl, and peeks under the plate to be sure the blocks are still there. He is attentive to the task, creating his own learning experience, and demonstrating independence within his own capabilities and potential. He is also content,

Seeing isn't always believing, at least for the one-year-old baby who has misplaced his wooden cube. For him, out of sight is out of mind. Yet children need to learn that an object does not disappear permanently because it is out of sight. He needs to experience the hard work of looking for the cube. He needs to know that it is still there somewhere and more importantly, that he is capable of locating it for himself. Independence and willpower develop form such experiences. Of course, the baby needs help. The understanding adult who points to the cube which has become hidden under the corner of the rug, and says, "There it is - YOU go get it," gives practical reinforcement to the idea of self-learning, and makes a game out of the idea. The adult provides the security. The child discovers for himself. What could be more satisfying for both parent and child?

By the time your baby is one year old, he has developed the ability to grasp objects securely with his thumb and forefinger - his motor coordination is rapidly developing. His large muscles (in his legs and arms) enable him to get where he wants to go by creeping, crawling, standing, and walking. The small muscles in his feet, hands, and face enable him to do things with the objects he touches. He is learning how to manipulate his world to suit himself. Give him the opportunity to hide and find familiar toys, stack and knock down boxes, cartons, etc., put finger food inside of a container and then look for it and eat it! Learning experiences? YES! Soon out of sight won't mean out of mind, and his world will be more interesting, more challenging, and more fun.

"Let's start with a few warm-up exercises," I suggested to the mother of a six-week old girl one morning. "WHAT?" she gasped, and began to laugh. "No, I'm quite serious," I protested. "Really." Now the laugh had turned into hysterics. But I'm the persistent type - stubborn too. I explained, amid the howls and giggles, that human beings have mental as well as physical muscles, and that children of the infant and toddler variety seem to respond much better to learning an activity if they have had some vigorous physical forms of exercise first. Since we were experimenting with ways to help the young child learn right in their own homes, and since the mother had regained her composure, I demonstrated with the baby what I meant. I took the infant and laid her over my knee, I slowly rotated her arms in alternate fashion, as if she were swimming. I repeated the exercise a dozen times, and then did the same thing with her legs. When I had finished, the baby was alert - her eyes were moving eagerly - her arms and legs wriggling expectantly. It was as if she were saying, "Come on, what's next? Let's go, let's do something." This is the moment when a toy is offered to touch, a rattle dangled in a moving arc, a smiling face talking and looking right at the baby - when these experiences become learning and learning becomes fun - interesting - important.

Physical exercises for the young baby must be short, and easy to repeat often. A perfect example of such an activity is the bicycle exercise. Place the infant on his back on the floor. Slowly extend and contract his legs as if pedaling a bicycle. LOOK at the baby. Talk to him. Count. Sing. Suddenly it is obvious both the mental and physical muscles are in operation, and that the child is thoroughly enjoying himself. It's fun. It's a new way for the baby to express himself and interact with the most important person in his world.

In the paper recently pictures and a story appeared about the five-month-old son of a pair of figure skaters who were appearing in a variety show at the Gaslight Village in Lake George. The father claimed his son has had perfect standing balance since the age of 12 weeks. In the act, the infant appears in a clown suit, serenely standing alone, balanced in the palm of his father's hand. The baby is smiling, watching his father's face intently.

Can you hear the indignation now? HOW can they exploit a baby like that? Why that baby should be home in bed at THAT our (show time, 'PM). But, just for fun, and infant learning is fun, lets look at some facts about how a baby learns. He learns primarily in two ways - imitation and repetition. If an infant as young as 12 weeks exhibits his own uniqueness by "liking" to stand when held in a secure upright position, and if his parents find pleasure and a sense of physical closeness with the child by doing this with him, then the experience becomes self-rewarding and important. It becomes learning, and in no way injures the child. Instead, that baby and his father obviously found a learning task, which was suited to the baby's unique personality and the father's background and vocation. The father's approval and praise of the child has a great deal to do with the feasibility of the task. Tell a baby - "Good for you," or "You did it - that's good!", look at the baby, touch the baby, express your pleasure by smiling, and see what happens. Your reward is attentiveness and alertness. Even if the infant does not understand the words or the action, he senses that, simply, he is understood. He feels secure. He feels good about himself.

But, with infants, extremes don't work. Babies will repeat a pleasant task, respond to a smiling face, only until he has had enough, and then it's all over - forcing a baby is an impossible scene, and without any rewards for parent or child.

A baby is never too young to try! Mom/Dad, have you ever said, "Don't touch." "Don't put your fingers in your mouth, don't touch yourself there, can't you leave your sister alone? "Don't point at that man." Etc, etc, etc. Sound familiar? If it is, you might try to remember and wonder at the fact that the child from birth through three years of age experiences most of his learning and play activity through TOUCH. It is an absolutely, perfectly normal condition known as skin hunger, and it doesn't disappear when childhood turns into adolescence or when adolescence becomes adulthood. Somehow it is always there.

Skin hunger is closely related, it seems to me, to the stage of development concerned with self, when everything is "me", "I want", etc., and that occurs long before the child can say those words. A baby plays with his body because it is there. He touches the mirror image of himself because it is there, and we as parents need to see that the infant has many daily chances to touch people, fingers, things that feel good - warm water, slippery soap, a rag doll, or a piece of ribbon - silky or soft. As they say, what turns him on, is what you do over again. The infant will tell you when he has had enough. He will cease to pay attention. In infancy, until the child is about a year old, out of sight means out of mind, so when the baby's skin hunger is satisfied, removing the object will end the experience.

From the moment a baby is born, he is ready to learn. The first three months of life are spent mainly learning the mouth, the eyes, and the hands according to need. He sucks. He focuses and follows movement. He reaches and holds fast. That is what the infant has to work with, and parents should be aware that they can help stimulate the purposeful use of the hands, eyes, and mouth by providing objects and changes of atmosphere conducive to learning. But first, examine the negative side. What would happen if parents didn't create anything for the young baby to touch, see, or hold? Imagine an empty room - with only a crib in it. Inside the crib, a two-month-old lies on his back, not quite old enough to roll over. There is nothing in the room. No light, or shadow of darkness. There is no moving person or object, no forms or shapes, no textures or filled spaces. The baby moves his eyes about briefly, but with nothing to catch his attention, he soon loses interest, and stares. He grabs at the air, unable to get the crib bars in reach. He makes chirping noises, guttural sounds, a "wo-wo2" sound or tow-no one talks back. He cries. He kicks, but he cannot see his legs or feet so they afford him no entertainment. He tires. He is NOT tired. He is bored, apathetic. He has lost his alertness, his desire to learn. I have pictured an extreme case, but it says a lot about the will, the innate desire of all infants to want to learn, and the range of experiences even the youngest baby can have and by which he can benefit.

Provide a daily range and change of play objects for your infant. A tray placed next to the place where the baby is changed helps to make a physical necessity an interesting experience. Place the spoon or foam ball within the child's eyesight, but not directly in front of him - either one side or the other is better. Then put the object in his hand, still holding it with your own. Wave the hand and object from side to side, talking, and smiling - 10 seconds will do. A play experience!

Even at a few weeks of age, your baby tells you in many ways what he is like - his personality is showing through the maze of physical needs for which he is very dependent upon you - the parent. From the moment of birth, the infant communicates. He cries differently for different reasons. He sucks, then looks around, then sucks some more. He makes sounds and actions, which are for the most part involuntary, but after a few weeks they mean something to someone. They have, in other words, a purpose. This is the moment when learning can begin, when a baby can begin to feel and assimilate through the senses that someone out there loves him. Parents should try to imitate the sounds their infant makes and repeat them back to the baby. Talk words as well as sounds. The more the infant hears, the more familiar language (and with it security) becomes. Language is nothing more than the imitation of sounds. Talk in a loving tone, since harsh sounds seem to involuntarily produce fear in a newborn child.

A child can only learn if he is secure - very much of a strong point for holding an infant for bottle-feeding instead of propping the bottle. Feeding time also produces a feeling of well being and satisfaction which makes for another perfect opportunity for learning language and persistence, even when a baby is as young as a month old. While the infant sucks, talk to him, looking directly into his face. Try to get his attention. Speak his name. Tell her to look at "Mommy" or "Daddy". When his gaze turns to focus on you, smile, praise him, hold him closer, respond to him physically, and emotionally. He will respond to you in many ways. The point is: he is getting experience in paying attention to something to which he is attracted - a voice, a face, a movement. What parent doesn't which her two-year-old would pay better attention? Start in babyhood with this as a learning experience. It can only be fun and interesting, and for baby, a new experience to put into the brain cell computer!

Imagine your amazement, when, at the moment of your baby's birth, you see your infant holding a paper bag in one tiny fist. Imagine that he looks at you and says, "This is my paper bag. It is empty right now, but I want you to help me use my body and my brain to fill the bag with ideas, experiences, and actions - all the things I want to know and do and be. I want to learn. Will you help me?"

GULP. You think to yourself - impossible- a minute old baby, ready to learn, ready to start the education process. Hasn't anyone told him about nursery school? What's the sense of learning until the kid can reason - think out solutions to problems - that kind of stuff. If he thinks he is going to run my life, he's got another thing coming - discipline is what is needed. I'm not going to have any spoiled brats gumming up my life. End of birth scene.

In fact, the education process does begin at birth, and not at age three in a nursery school classroom. Parents are the most important teachers their children will ever have, and the families attitude toward what learning is all about is crucial to the infant's future - his potential and his cognitive (intellectual) growth. Children seem to grow up with their parents' morals by sheer osmosis or imitation, maybe? The learning which takes place in the home, where routine and familiarity abound, is the substance of which subsequent learning is literally made possible. It is the yeast that rises up, the unseen force behind the will to be positive, not negative, the will to push ahead and say, "Yes, Ill try," instead of "No, I cant."

Back to the bag. It represents a personality - a unique person, who is the sum total of all he has experience and done. It is his personality in that bag, his point of view.

Ask Dr. Susan