Every parent wants to know, "Do educational DVDs actually help babies learn?"
The research says no. One 2007 study, by the Journal of Pediatrics, found no difference in language acquisition between children who watched educational DVDs and those who didn't. Other research, released in 2011 from the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) and in 2010 from the Archives of Pediatrics & Adolescent Medicine, suggests that babies learn language better by interacting with live speakers than by passively listening to language coming from a DVD.
Most important, the time that a child spends watching DVDs is time that could be spent learning through engaging and interacting with parents, siblings and caregivers, according to the AAP study. For example, during an interaction, Mom might say, "Look — it's a bird! The bird says 'tweet, tweet!' What does it say?" Her child gains new information and also has to recall that information by answering the question. When the question is answered correctly, Mom can reinforce her child's success by saying, "Good job! You're right. The bird says 'tweet, tweet!' "
When it comes to teaching language to children younger than 2, social interaction beats educational DVDs hands down.
Activity 1: Coloring my world.
Playing and coloring on a vertical surface puts your child's wrist in an extended position, which is the same way the wrist is held when writing and cutting. Coloring in this position also strengthens the muscles in her shoulders, which together with her trunk muscles form a base of support for her arms and hands.
A solid base supports the many fine motor skills your child will develop in the future. She can strengthen this base by coloring or finger painting a picture while she stands. If you don't have an easel, tape an extra-large piece of paper to the wall. (Butcher paper works well.) Even though the paper is taped in place, prompt your child to stabilize it with one hand as she scribbles with the other to encourage bilateral skills.
Activity 2: Painting the town.
If your child enjoys coloring, she will probably love finger painting. Have her sit in a highchair with a tray for this activity if possible. Use a recipe for edible finger paint or a tiny bit of vanilla or chocolate pudding. Tape a large piece of thick paper to her tray (wax paper and heavy-duty foil are also options) and give her a small bowl of paint or pudding.
Show her how to use her index finger to make circles and other designs on the paper. She may even imitate you as you draw vertical or horizontal lines. If she doesn't, try placing your hand over hers, guiding her through several strokes. As you draw the stroke, tell her what you're doing by saying, "We're making a line that goes down," or "We're making a circle." Remove your hand and demonstrate the stroke again while repeating what you said. See if your child imitates the stroke. If so, repeat the verbal cue by saying, "Great, you are making a line that goes down."
At this age, if she has no interest in imitating strokes, don't worry about it. Let her enjoy working on her own artistic creation. The point is for her to have fun.
Activity 3: Call me.
Have you ever noticed your child watching you as you talk on the phone? She is learning constantly, especially while watching you. If you give her your phone, she'll probably put it straight to her ear. She may even already have her own toy phone. Either way, have some fun playing this phone game with her.
Sit your child on your lap, hold a phone to your ear, and speak into it, mentioning your child's name. "I'm having fun with Susie today. She's right here with me. Would you like her to say hello?" Hold the phone to your child's ear and say, "Susie, say hello to the person on the phone." Continue a conversation using words your child is familiar with, such as mommy and daddy. Occasionally put the phone to your child's ear to see if she will talk into it.
Anne Zachry is a pediatric occupational therapist and assistant professor of Occupational Therapy at the University of Tennessee Health Science Center. Reprinted with permission from American Academy of Pediatrics.