Individuals caring for infants and toddlers have an awesome responsibility. We know from research that the first three years of life form the basis for later growth and development. So, what does an infant and toddler curriculum that stimulates babies’ brains and maximize learning look like? The components of a quality infant and toddler program are many. This article will attempt to identify the major components, explain infant and toddler milestones, and provide suggestions for implementing developmentally appropriate practice.
Principles of Child Development
Development is a complex and emergent process of ever-increasing skills and abilities where each period of growth is preceded by a brief, sometimes turbulent regression (Brazelton, 1992). Four general principles of development help chart the amazing developmental changes that take place during the first three years of life. The first principle is that growth follows a universal and predictable sequence. Further, the predictability of development can be seen in each area of development—physical, social, emotional, cognitive, and language. For example, in the physical domain, development proceeds from sitting, to crawling to pulling, to a stand to walking (Berk, 1996).
The second principle of development is that each child has an individual pattern and timing of growth. Although the sequence is predictable, each child’s individual progress through the sequence is subject to variation. For example, one child may pull to a standing position and walk at eight months while another may do so at 13 months.
The third principle is that development proceeds from the simple to the complex or from the general to the specific. Simple skills must be acquired before more complex ones can be attempted. Children eat with their fingers before attempting to use a spoon or fork. Controlling fingers is a simpler task than controlling an extension of the fingers, the fork (Kail, 1998).
The sequence of development makes up the fourth principle. During the first few years, children develop their bodies from the top down and from the center out—cephalocaudal-proximodistal trend. Most children, for example, can swipe at objects by the age of five or six months, pick up objects between the thumb and forefinger by 11 or 12 months, hold aspoon by 22 months, and begin scribbling with a crayon by 30 months, illustrating the proximodistal trend. Similarly, children roll over by five or six months, sit without support by seven or eight months, pull to a stand by 10 to 12 months, and walk by 12 to 16 months, illustrating the cephalocaudal trend. Both of these trends are mediated by children’s unique pace through the developmental sequence, the unevenness of development in general, and the opportunities available for experience and practice of emerging skills (Ames, et al, 1979; Berk, 1996).
Quality Infant and Toddler Programs Foster Partnerships With Parents
Parents are the most significant people in their children’s lives and serve as first and foremost teachers (Brazelton & Cramer, 1990; Brazelton, 1992). As teachers, we should incorporate frequent communications with parents. A good start is a written system to support clear communication, particularly if parents and teachers do not see each other at the beginning or end of each day. The system should include notes to the teacher about the child’s time at home, space for special instruction from parents to teachers, places to record eating, sleeping, diapering, and play behavior, and space to record developmental notes or observations.
Teachers have numerous other ways to connect with parents as well. Parents can be invited into the classroom through pictures, audio tapes, and parent participation activities (Gestwicki, 1996). Teachers can share the day with parents through photographs of children taken during the day and by frequent and regular parent conferences. Telephones and e-mail have simplified communication because teachers and parents can use these technologies to increase communication when they have time during the day.
Observation and Assessment of Children
Observation and assessment serve three goals in curriculum development. First, techniques like observation and assessment orient parents and teachers to the uniqueness of each child (Herr & Swim, 1999). Second, observation and assessment focus the parent’s and teacher’s attention on emerging skills and abilities—what the child can do instead of what the child can’t do. Third, observation and assessment guide curriculum development that is sensitive to emerging skills yet doesn’t frustrate or over-stimulate.
Creating an Appropriate Environment
As stated previously, the components of an infant and toddler program are many, but what should your infant and toddler environment look like? What elements contribute to a developmentally appropriate classroom? The description of important infant and toddler components follow.
Consistency and Flexibility. As contradictory as it sounds, a balance between consistency and flexibility results in environments that are neither boring nor over-stimulating. Infants and toddlers benefit from environmental consistency in the location of their rooms, where they sleep, and the location of certain components of the environment like where their blankets and security items are kept and where they are diapered or fed.
Stimulation. Environments for infants and toddlers need to provide multiple sources of stimulation, which encourage development of a wide variety of skills. Stimulation should be available from toys, materials, equipment, furniture, and, of course, people and other children. But stimulation should also be controllable. There should be ways to turn up the stimulation in a room, as well as ways to turn it down.
Private Places. Environments for infants and toddlers should provide access to private spaces where children can be all alone, even when the room is full of children. These spaces make the child care day manageable for very young children who have limited skill filtering out stimulation.
Intimate and Undisturbed Space. Space should allow for time with caregivers that is intimate and undisturbed (Greenman, 1988); places where adults can be with children. Further, the environment should provide ways for children to watch other children play, and to play with or alongside other children in varying pairs, trios, and small groups (Gonzales-Mena & Eyer, 1997).
Aesthetics. The aesthetics of the environment are also important to consider. Color affects moods, nerves, and emotions of both adults and children. Color research with young children has shown that red and orange increase initial activity but result in rapid fatigue. Yellow slows down motor movement and encourages boredom. Blue and green create, in children, outward signs of well-being and relaxed movement (Cherry, 1976). Additionally, where color is used is important. Walls, furniture, and fixtures need to be soft, soothing colors (like off-white or beige and pastels) while toys and materials can be bright and stimulating.
Activity Areas. The physical environment of the classroom is a very important component of infant and toddler curriculum. The activity center approach, which is widely used in preschool programs, is appropriate for infant and toddler classrooms as long as adjustments are made to adapt centers to the behaviors and skills of infants and toddlers (Cataldo, 1983). In general, preschoolers choose and go to stationary activity centers, whereas infant and toddler activity areas are taken to the child by the teacher.
Personalizing the Environment. Environments for very young children should be personalized to reflect the children who are living in them. Use photographs of children, their parents, pets, avorite relatives, and their homes. Mounted on the walls, attached safely to bulletin boards with clear contact paper, and mounted in cribs, photographs or even pictures from magazines can be a very connecting experience for children. In addition, photographs of children at rest, work, and play should be regularly available for children to see. To facilitate the use of photographs, plan to keep either an instant camera or an automatic camera loaded with print film available.
Feeding and diapering are two of the most time consuming routines. Very young infants may eat six or eight times a day and need as many diaper changes. Toddlers eat less often and require less frequent diaper changes, but the number of children in a group usually increases. So toddler teachers have a fewer number of feedings and changings, but more children who must be fed and changed. Add to this, the need to allow infants and toddlers to establish very individual schedules and should be tailored. This means that one or two children might eat every four hours while another eats every three hours. The same is true for sleeping and elimination. Individual scheduling means letting the child's natural biological rhythms and temperament determine his or her schedule rather than super-imposing a common schedule on all children.
Allowing both infants and toddlers to determine their own schedules means that caregivers are still feeding, changing, and putting children to sleep, but instead of doing it all at once, they are doing it intermittently all day long (Watson, Watson, & Wilson, 1999). The result is less stress for children waiting to have their needs met and less pressure on teachers to meet multiple needs at once. (Quick tip: A written copy of each child’s typical schedule should be kept close at hand. It serves as a reminder of what might come next and can be particularly helpful to substitute teachers.)
The Daily Schedule
Although scheduling the infant and toddler day is much more complex than scheduling older children’s days, infants and toddlers need the same things all children need—stimulating, safe environments, time for outdoor play and fresh air, a variety of play choices that vary throughout the day, and warm, nurturing interactions with adults.
For children under eight or nine months, routines of diapering, feeding, and napping will form much of the daily schedule. But even these routine activities provide excellent opportunities for learning and stimulation. Teachers who use routines to insure a healthy dose of reciprocal exchanges—the give and take of interactions—are not spending too much time on routine care. On the contrary, they make the most of the time by “ping ponging,” getting a response and responding. If the time spent in routine tasks is maximized, children blossom and teachers succeed in finding time for one-on-one interchanges (Gordon, 1970; Herr & Swim, 1999).
Tickling toes, playing peek-a-boo, talking to children during diapering, getting the child to hold a cup after eating, etc., become the core of interactions with babies. In addition, infant environments should include a variety of stimulating things to manipulate, touch, watch, follow, taste, and so forth. By the time children are about 14-16 months old, mobility allows teachers to plan and implement a more systematic daily activity schedule with more children following similar schedules throughout the day (Herr & Swim, 1999). Another important consideration for infant and toddler programming includes providing enough materials for every interested child to participate. Duplicates of materials or similar materials must be available so that each child has his or her own play thing. Because children at this age tend to go where the action is, they will always be drawn to the adults and other children in the room, even though they lack the social skills to participate successfully in groups. Activities and materials must either accommodate all interested children or be visually separated from other children.
Cataldo (1983) directed teachers to also consider balancing planned activities with spontaneous activities that occur in the natural course of events. Too many planned activities restrict children’s experiences to adult choices and pleasure. Too little opportunity for learning by living results in limited self-motivation, limited exploration, fewer opportunities for successful peer interaction, and less chance of independent discovery learning.
Planning activities and experiences for infants and toddlers is not difficult—anything and everything interests them. The hard part is matching children's schedules and interests with activities. Popular activities can be repeated more than once a day or daily for several days. This ensures that children who want to participate have the time to do so. Sometimes you will need to throw out planned activities because something more interesting arises that deserves attention. Unlike schedules for older children, those for infants and toddlers must be flexible enough to consider each child’s readiness for participation and include alternatives if a particular planned activity doesn’t work.
Another important component of curriculum is time alone to explore, experience, watch, and investigate (Gerber, 1979). When the environment is well-planned and full of toys to manipulate, materials to touch, and pictures or photos to look at, infants and toddlers will be engaged and interested. Children who are left alone, however, still need alert, attentive caregivers. Teachers should position themselves near where the child is playing because a child will often “check in” by looking up, smiling, or watching to see if their teacher is paying attention. Smiling, nodding, clapping for accomplishments, and giving warm facial expressions all convey to the child that the teacher is near, engaged, and available.
During the first three years of life, children go from non-verbal to speaking in complete sentences. Recent research in neurobiology has shown that the first two years of a child’s life are critical for language development. This critical period is like a window, opening for stimulation and development, then closing (Shore, 1997). Responses from teachers to all early attempts at communication motivates babies to continue the dialogue and expand their vocal abilities.
The field of speech and language development offers several indirect language stimulation techniques that infant and toddler teachers have found extremely useful. These techniques—description, parallel talk, self-talk, expansion and expansion plus—serve to direct the teacher's language behaviors to encourage the emergence of language.
Description is a technique in which the caregiver narrates or describes what is going on in the child’s world by putting word labels on things. For example, if a child looks toward the door as a parent enters the room, the adult might say, “That’s Jenny’s mother. She must be here to pick up Jenny.” Description is also helpful in communicating what Gerber (1979) termed mutual respect. Mutual respect involves telling children what will happen to them before it happens and waiting for the child to indicate that he or she is ready. A teacher might say, “It’s time for a diaper change,” as a description of what will happen to the child. A respectful teacher waits for the child to pause in her activity and indicate readiness before continuing. The teacher would then describe each step of the diaper change as it occurs, “Off come your pants. Here’s the clean diaper. All done!” Parallel talk is a short phrase that focuses on the child’s action.
Parallel talk usually begins with “you.” For example, “You’re turning over from your back to your front.” Others might be, “You’re putting the blocks in the bucket,” “You’ve got the baby doll,” or “You pulled off your shoe.” Focusing on the action helps the child put word labels on behavior.
Self-talk, on the other hand, focuses on adult behavior. Teachers who use self-talk usually start their utterances with “I.” For example, a teacher might say to a child who is getting fussy, “I’ll be over to pick you up as soon as I put these toys back on the shelf.”
Expansion and expansion plus are extremely useful techniques to use with toddlers when their vocabularies begin to grow. These techniques take what the child says and expand on it (expansion) or add to what the child says (expansion plus.) For example, when a child says “muk,” the teacher might say, “You want more milk,” to expand what the child says into a complete sentence. For expansion plus, the teacher adds a little more to the sentence a child uses. An example might be expanding, “Go bye bye,” uttered by the child, to “It’s time to get your things and go bye bye.”
Notice that these techniques require nothing of the child. The child is not asked to repeat the larger sentence, repeat the label of an object identified by description, or to respond further to the teacher. These techniques are stimulation approaches which add information to the child’s language skills and foster future language development.
All children need someone to fall in love with at school—a special, caring, interesting, consistent person who responds (Greenspan & Greenspan, 1985; Greenman & Stonehouse, 1996). Assigning primary teachers is the first step in making sure the child at this stage has his or her needs met and social and emotional growth facilitated (Raikes, 1993). The give and take of interaction helps children develop a sense of trust in the adults that care for them (Erickson, 1963). The teacher smiles at the baby—the baby smiles back; the baby coos—the teacher talks back. This type of interaction sets the stage for a secure attachment to the teacher as well as stimulation for neural connections in the brain (Shore, 1997).
Senses need to be involved in stimulation, too. Touching, tasting, smelling, hearing, and seeing the world about them is very important to infants. Therefore, babies should spend time in their cribs only when they are sleeping. Awake time should be spent near adults, watching, hearing, touching, smelling and tasting them and the things adults offer to children.
In addition, infants need plenty of opportunities to see “what happens if...” They are beginning to seek out cause and effect relationships and the classroom should be full of them (Honig, 1982). Push-pull toys, squeak toys, adults who play hide and seek, water to pour, blankets to pull, and so forth.
An organized sense of self begins to show itself in assertive exploration of everything (Greenspan & Greenspan, 1985). Toddlers begin to test limits and attempt to control and manipulate the world around them—including the adults in it. Firm, consistent limits are important even in situations when children are practicing being the boss or testing their independence.
Opportunities to test and experiment with the range of feelings is also important. They learn to understand a little bit of what another child feels (called empathy) but cannot yet really take the role of the other person in her interactions (called altruism.). Toddlers begin to internalize the rules adults have had for them over the past two years and need less frequent reminders about old rules. New rules, though, take a period of constant reminding before they begin to be followed. The dependable teacher is still important—particularly during times of stress or when negative emotions are present (Gonzales-Mena & Eyer, 1997). Toddlers need someone to read non-verbal cues and anticipate needs just like babies do—only now, toddlers are able to think about more abstract things than they could when they were younger. Concentration emerges during this stage and teachers will see interested children play for longer periods of time at activities that test their skill.
The components of creating a quality infant and toddler program are many, but each one is valuable to the development of these very young children. Understanding growth and development, building parent partnerships, creating appropriate environments, and providing stimulating activities and play will help babies thrive and give them the tools necessary for later success. However, the most important gift teachers of infants and toddlers give is love.
Kay Albrecht, Ph.D., is the former director of Hearts Home Early Learning Center, a nationally accredited early childhood program in Houston, TX. She is a senior partner in Innovations in Early Childhood Education. Her consulting specialties include director and teacher training and curriculum development. Her latest books, Innovations: The Complete Infant Curriculum and Innovations: The Complete Toddler Curriculum, co-authored with Linda Miller, Ed.D, are available from Gryphon House (800-638-0928).
Linda Miller, Ed.D., has 26 years of experience in the field of education as a classroom teacher, supervisor, federal projects administrator, and curriculum developer. Her latest books, Innovations: The Complete Infant Curriculum and Innovations: The Complete Toddler Curriculum, co-authored with Kay Albrecht, Ph.D., are available from Gryphon House (800-638-0928).She can be reached by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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