Infants experience the world with their whole bodies. Physical sensation, thought and feelings are all one total experience. The infant also perceives no separation between herself and her mother. Babies learn through their eyes, ears, nose, hands, mouth, and skin.
Babies also learn by moving their bodies. Although at first their movement is reflexive (not voluntary), infants quickly learn that they can create change by moving their bodies. An example of this is when a baby hits the crib mobile by accident and something happens. After experiencing this several times, a connection is made and the baby will wave it's arm in the same way to recreate the effect. Intentional movement has begun.
Infants spend a lot of time sleeping, especially during their newborn period. But, whenever they are awake and alert, they are ready and eager to learn. They quickly begin gazing into their parents’ eyes and turning toward warm, familiar voices. One clear choice they make is to use their senses to respond first to people, and then to objects. For example, while researchers are finding that infants like to look at things that move, what young infants seem to prefer most is looking at human faces. Another example of their “people choice” is their obvious preference for contact with another body – learning about their world through their skin – as opposed to lying by themselves in the cradle. The sense of touch provides reassuring warmth, tactile comfort and closeness.
In the first year, infants dramatically change in their capacity to move independently, with each newly acquired ability increasing their understanding. They quickly become active explorers of their environment. Initially, they explore intensely with their mouths, learning about different textures, shapes and tastes. For this reason, toys need to be safe and should provide interesting surfaces. As they begin to handle objects, babies form mental concepts about those experiences. They grow in their thinking abilities when they are faced with surprises they can manage.
They learn about object permanence – (that is, that an object or person still exists even if they can’t see it at a particular moment – hence, their love of endless games of peek-a-boo or hide-the-toy-underthe-blanket). They come to understand the idea of cause-and-effect (shaking a rattle makes a great sound, or pushing down the button makes the clown jump up). They are great experimenters, learning first by simple trial and error and then through more purposeful actions. They are constantly trying new things with familiar toys, and always welcome a new uncharted adventure.
Coupled with an increased understanding of how things work is their growing ability to communicate. From birth, babies communicate. As in all areas of development, they do this first with the whole body, responding with pleasure to a parent’s voice by smiling and kicking their arms and legs. A whole repertoire of sounds comes quickly to infants who learn by listening to speech and by experimenting with their own voices and seeing its effect on the world. By the end of the first year, many babies use a few words with actual meaning: to get their needs met, to greet people, or for self-expression.
The greatest needs of an infant in the first year of life are for a warm, safe, trusting relationship with parents and caregivers; a physical environment that holds a variety of experiences; the freedom to explore that world safely; communication and respect as an individual. Toys that will delight the infant are those that can be squeezed, squeaked, chewed and grasped. Also favored will be things to stack and nest, as well as mirrors, books and music.
In the second and third years of life an infant becomes a toddler and continues to explore through senses and movement, although in a much more refined manner. The new mobility gained by learning to walk makes independence and curiosity the name of the game. Determined to find out how the world works, the toddler wants to take things apart and put them back together; to put them in and take them out; to stack, roll, pound and drop. Everything in their world becomes a toy and they like to make things happen. Toys now take on a much greater role as toddlers begin to comprehend that they are truly separate from mom and dad and caregivers. Challenges in toys are welcome, and those toys that can be used in sand, water and dirt are especially important because these are favorite elements.
A toddler’s ability to communicate is exploding. They learn new words and their meanings at a phenomenal rate. This language explosion is enriched by those around them, and by other stimulating experiences with sound, music, and books. Imagination is now expressed in words and actions so that the toddlers can now show the world an ability to create a world of fantasy. Pretending at first will consist of imitation of those familiar actions that are most often watched (for example, stirring with a spoon in a bowl).
Toddlers will have the desire to express themselves creatively in music and art as well as with their newly discovered “talking” ability. With close supervision, children can begin to use crayons and marking pens on large sheets of paper. Seeing their own marks on paper will be thrilling to two-yearolds. Music, as well, provides the rhythms and maybe a few words of their favorite songs. The first three years in the life of a child are a wonder to behold. As babies and toddlers become preschoolers, their ability to perceive, hold information, and respond to the world in diverse ways becomes a new challenge. They can now make sense of the concrete, physical world, and its translation into thought, ideas and sensitivity become the method and the mode of learning. Eager to learn all about the physical world and their own place in it, they move on with tremendous energy.