Boost your toddler’s brainpower

From the way you read a book to how you play at bathtime, there are endless ways to make the most of your little one’s intelligence

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  • From dawn until dusk, you’re feeding your tot a nourishing diet of brain-boosting activities. News to you? Well, it’s true. From simple errands around town to cosy cuddles at bedtime, all aspects of your day-to-day activities have a direct impact on his little-yet-impressive developing brain.

    Just as good food and plenty of physical activity helps young bodies to grow, social experiences and play do the same for the mind. Educational psychologist Charles Ward from Ward Psychology ( explains: “Just being with mum and dad, playing or reading together and doing day-to-day stuff offers endless opportunities for social interactions that are key to learning.” Apply the idea to each part of your day and you’ll soon see your toddler’s brain blossoming.

  • Storytime

    You probably already know to encourage your tot to choose his own book, and that reading aloud will help him to read in the future. In fact, experts have found a direct link that suggests children who listen well usually go on to read well.

    “Early reading experiences should fundamentally be about fun and exploration,” says Charles. Former Children’s Laureate Michael Rosen agrees, adding: “Reading books to young children is the best way to get them thinking, wondering, feeling and understanding. Encourage children to like stories, share picture books and enjoy this cuddle time.”

    Try this...

    Let your child join in with noises, rhymes, actions and repeated words. Encourage him to ask questions so he learns from the story as well as being entertained by it. Or try saying one line or word and getting him to repeat it. That ensures he’s listening as you go along, and not distracted. 

  • Bathtime

    Having a splash in the bath is sheer heaven for most toddlers. Yet as he’s washing and playing he’s learning so much – and his brain is soaking it all up.

    “The bath can be a science laboratory, exploring what sinks and what floats, pouring water, filling different-sized containers all makes for fun learning experience,” explains Charles. You can help him understand the basic idea by talking through what’s happening, for example by saying “Wow, that floats!” and “Oh no, it sank!”.

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    Take the dolls for a dip and ask your toddler to help ‘bath the baby’ to encourage him to learn empathy and nurturing skills. Foam alphabet letters increase his familiarity with the shapes. Make a small new word every bathtime to help develop the connection in his brain between spoken and written language.

  • Outdoor time

    Swings and slides are great for tots, but you don’t need them to help boost his brainpower. “Play isn’t the same thing as entertainment – the more we try to keep children entertained, the more we shut down their potential for curiosity and creativity,” says Sue.

    So go to a field, use your garden or an allotment. Let him explore with his hands and get grubby. This getting stuck-in approach will enhance children’s knowledge of the world. Finding creatures in the world and watching rainwater run off leaves subconsciously opens up the basics of science and biology to your child’s mind.

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    The opportunities to count things and build on his mathematical side are endless. Make sure you let him try, instead of counting things for him. Ask him questions. Why does he think a bird cheeps? Why does he like the feel of the mud under his wellies? His answers will surprise and amuse you.

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  • Role play

    Whether it’s pretending he’s Iggle Piggle, or roaring like a lion, when your toddler is acting out different characters there’s plenty of learning going on. In fact, research suggests play can even have a direct influence on the size of his brain.

    The Baylor College of Medicine in the US concluded from an extensive study that babies who had the most opportunities to play had larger brains with greater neural pathways than others. Play expert and author of Toxic Childhood, Sue Palmer ( explains: “One of the most important human learning devices is imitation – making a house, a shop, a hospital or some other pretend place and acting out things he’s seen, or bits of stories he’s heard. Role play is great for a child to replicate what he sees and hears at home, making sense of the world around him.”

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    Make sure there are plenty of things to play with that’ll let him copy and repeat what he sees in real life, such as toy food and cutlery, crockery or play money. For dressing-up clothes, include simple bits of cloth or cloaks as well as complete costumes, then he can create his own characters and stories.

  • Playdates

    “Children begin playing alone but gradually – usually somewhere between 2 and 3 – they start interacting with other kids, and combining their play,” says Sue. “This is hugely important because for the first time they’re socialising on equal terms and finding their own social feet. They’re developing their ‘mind-mindedness’ – the understanding that other people have feelings, ideas, a point of view that’s different from their own”.

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    Make sure there isn’t too much adult interruption so the children can use initiative and imagination. Get creative in the kitchen. Charles says: “Cooking is great for exploring texture, splashing with water, making and creating.” Learning about heating, mixing and rising are all ingredients for a perfect science lesson – all in the name of biscuits!

  • Mums’ stories

    “Billy loves to search the illustrations in books for things I’ve asked him to spot, such as plants, food, animals, people and colours. If I’m cooking, I always give him a job, to keep him involved. For instance, chopping mushrooms with a blunt children’s knife – rustic looks better anyway.”

    Andrea Dunne, 35, from Brighton, mum to Billy, 2

    “I talk to Eve about what’s happening all the time, and repeat key words and phrases – now she puts words like ‘key’ and ‘door’ together, and is discovering how words relate to objects and their uses. You can really see her starting to make sense of the world.”

    Emily Dalton, 33, from Newark, mum to Eve, 16 months

  • TV or not TV?

    Turning the television on for our little ones can occasionally make some of us feel guilty. But while psychologists agree that television at a young age should be limited, most believe that watching a little age-appropriate, high quality programming may actually have some benefits. The key though is to watch with your little one, discussing issues, educational points and characters as they’re introduced. Also remember to turn the television off. Obvious as this seems, a TV is often on constantly in the background andthis isn’t ideal for listening skills.


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