Stimulating Environments

The birth of a new child is such an exhilarating time, so take advantage of the nesting urge by creating a nurturing, stimulating environment for your baby.

Babies are born ready to learn, and their brains develop through use. Experts believe that young children benefit a lot from stimulating environment with lots of different ways to play and learn.

Babies and toddlers learn through everyday play and exploration in a safe and stimulating environment, yet the foundation of assimilation and brain development is the emotional relationship with the main care giver. When children have warm, engaged and responsive relationships with their family and others, they are more capable to learn life skills - like communicating, thinking, problem-solving, moving and socializing within the community.

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Environments that are stimulating for babies and young children are filled with safe objects to explore, allow freedom of movement, and provide a variety of experiences. The following suggestions may help you decide and create an intriguing (and cozy) piece of this world for your little one:

  • Organize materials in some fashion (e.g., fill containers with blocks, provide babies with items to dump and fill, provide toddlers with boxes of toy vehicles or plastic animals, provide older children with items for dress-up and pretend play).
  • Make containers accessible to babies and children so they are free to choose what they want to play with. Change some toy choices regularly so they can be exposed to different objects from which to choose.
  • Provide safe access to windows so babies and children can look out onto the world, unbreakable mirrors for them to look into, and brightly colored pictures at their eye level.
  • Create varying floor surfaces for practicing crawling and walking (e.g., mats, carpets, smooth floor surfaces, carpet squares on tile floors).
  • Design safe spaces for crawling in or climbing over, using sofa cushions, cardboard boxes, and sheets.
  • Try to read babies’ or children’s cues when they become overwhelmed by all the stimulation, get bored with a toy, or need to be moved to a new place to play in the room, such as from the infant seat to a safe place on the floor where they can have some “tummy time.”
  • Plan spaces so that you can have a clear view of the babies’ or children’s activities all times.
  • Provide developmentally appropriate toys (age appropriate) for your child, like that, they have the chance to practice their new skills in movement, thinking, and interacting.

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 The following is a list of activities and of the toys appropriate for learning skills associated with each activity:

  • Movement: Walker wagon or ride-on toy (with a push handle for early walkers); pull toy (string must be less than 12 inches long); big, bouncy balls.
  • Using hands: Blocks (made of wood, plastic, or recycled milk cartons or boxes); shape sorter, nesting cups, simple puzzles; dump- and-fill containers (use recycled plastic containers); scrap paper, old magazines, paper grocery bags, drawing paper; crayons; an old set of keys; a flashlight; nontoxic play dough.
  • Water play: Squeeze bottles; sponges; plastic cups; soap crayons.
  • Pretend play: Parent’s old clothes for dress- up; toy phone; plastic kitchen utensils, spoons, and empty cereal boxes and milk car- tons; dolls, bottles, and blankets; mirror; toy tool set; toy vehicles.
  • Music: Drum or old pots and pans; musical tapes; singalong videos; child’s audiotape player. 
  • Language: Sturdy, colorful board books.

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The most important thing you can do to make sure that the environment is safe for your child is get down on your hands and knees in each room of your home to look at it from your baby’s or young child’s perspective. Other guidelines include the following:

  • Have a first aid kit at easy access,
  • Have a fire extinguisher in your home,
  • Change smoke alarm batteries every 6 months,
  • Have emergency numbers and your address and phone numbers next to every phone,
  • Put covers on all electric sockets,
  • Use toy chests with lids that come off easily or stay up well,
  • Put gates on all stairs (both at top and at bottom),
  • Have furnaces and fireplaces checked for carbon monoxide; install a carbon monoxide detector
  • Lock cabinets in the kitchen and bath- room; install childproof latches,
  • Use back burners when cooking, and turn pot handles away from their reach,
  • Keep chairs away from kitchen counters,
  • Take plastic covers off crib mattresses,
  • Use plastic guards for sharp corners on furniture,
  • Remove all cleaning supplies from low cabinets,
  • Never leave a baby unattended,
  • Do not put a baby’s crib near blinds, curtains, or anything with cords that hang down,
  • Do not use pillows in the baby’s crib,
  • Do not tie a pacifier around the baby’s neck,
  • Do not let the baby sleep wearing a necklace,
  • Do not drink hot beverages while holding the baby,
  • Do not let babies or children play in the bathroom,
  • Do not leave breakable items within reach of a baby or child,
  • Do not put highchairs close to counters.

The most important aspect of a stimulating environment is a caregiver (or caregivers) who can create inviting, challenging play spaces in which to interact with babies and young children, can set limits and be emotionally available to babies and young children, and can read babies’ and young children’s cues and support them when they become overstimulated, fatigued, or bored.

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Reference: Article "Stimulating Environments" by Bright Futures Kaplan-Sanoff M. 2002. Stimulating environments. In Jellinek M, Patel BP, Froehle MC, eds., Bright Futures in Practice: Mental Health—Volume II. Tool Kit. Arlington, VA: National Center for Education in Maternal and Child Health.

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