How to raise an imaginative child

Your toddler’s developing brain

Your child was born with about 100 billion brain cells. That’s amazing enough, but what’s happening now that he’s a toddler is almost more so. Each of those brain cells is sending out and receiving electrical signals, creating connections among brain cells that, through repetition, turn into networks. These networks (often called wiring or circuitry) allow him to think and learn. By his third birthday, your toddler’s brain will have formed about 1,000 trillion connections.

Right now, your toddler’s brain is forging the pathways that will be used for the rest of his life. A connection that’s used repeatedly becomes permanent, whereas one that’s not used again (or is used infrequently) may disappear. That’s why experts put so much emphasis on the first three years: Everything you do with your toddler, from playing to eating, walking, reading, and singing helps jump-start his brain.

As you expose your toddler to new sights, sounds, and sensations, you open his mind to a bigger, more exciting world. And when you use your imagination with him — “Look, I’m a tiger in the jungle!” “Let’s pretend we’re going to Grandma’s house” — you spur his brain to forge “imagination pathways” of its own.

How your toddler’s imagination works

Because your toddler’s verbal skills aren’t great yet, it can be hard to know what he’s thinking. But you can see glimmers of imagination in his imitation of the things he sees around him — a behavior that often emerges around the age of 18 to 20 months. Your toddler might copy the things you’re doing, mimic his own daily routine by pretending to feed his stuffed bear or put it down for a nap, or act like the family dog.

How your toddler’s imagination helps

An active imagination will help your toddler down the road in more ways than you might think.

Improving vocabulary. Children who play imaginary games or listen to lots of fairy tales, books, or stories spun by those around them tend to have noticeably better vocabularies. You may not see the fruits of these activities until next year, when your toddler’s vocabulary will expand rapidly, but you’re laying the foundation for it now.

Taking control. Pretending allows your toddler to be anyone he wants, explore negative emotions, practice things he’s learned, and make situations turn out the way he wants them to. Stories in which the three little pigs thwart the big bad wolf, or imaginary games in which his teddy bear submits to a bath, give him a sense that he can be powerful and in control even in unfamiliar or scary situations.

Solving problems. Dreaming up imaginary situations teaches your child to think creatively, which can be an asset in solving problems. A study conducted at Case Western Reserve University found that children who are imaginative when they’re young tend to keep this quality as they get older and become better problem-solvers. Tested later in life, early “imaginators” had more resources to draw on when it came to coping with challenges and difficult situations, such as what to do if they forgot a book they needed for school that day.

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