Baby, You Are Fantastic

I love babies. They are amazing, little geniuses observing and exploring as their brains flood with neurotransmitters and their synaptic connections fizz with learning. So why don’t we pay more attention to them?

In the Early Years policy world, babies are the silent group. It is almost as if children were born aged three.  Yet babyhood lays the foundations for a happy and healthy life and knowing how to support babies is critical because their wellbeing is strongly linked to better outcomes later in life. This includes educational achievement, progress at work and physical and mental health.

mum and baby looking at each other reading posing for mums magazine

So what does that mean when choosing the right nursery for your baby? At The London Early Years Foundation (LEYF), we recently won the Nursery World award for our work with babies and it made me proud. We won because of the attention we place on babies and, in particular, the training we provide for baby staff.  The status across the Early Years sector for baby staff is often low and sometimes inexperienced staff are placed in the baby rooms. I have always believed that we should put the best and most experienced and empathetic staff in the Baby Room. Babies need staff who understand how they are developing and learning and how to build and nurture attachment for every stage of their development. As we all know, babies learn at a phenomenal rate – just see the difference between a 4-month, a 12-month and a 20-month baby.

Sometimes adults think that babies need a watered-down version of the older children’s teaching curriculum but that is not a good idea. Babies need their own special way of exploring the world at their own pace. Nursery teachers need to understand that this learning is delivered mostly through warm routine, play and sensory experiences (both indoors and outside) and that every experience is a learning opportunity for a curious baby (often referred to as holistic learning). Babies like spaces that are safe, familiar and clean but also interesting places for activities and experiences to stimulate their very active senses.  Good nurseries also have soft, homely areas with curtains and rugs and a sofa so staff and babies can snuggle up with a book or a song or a conversation. Babies also love a den, a hiding spot to practise their peek a boo, but also because they like spaces that are intimate and sociable.

mum and baby looking at each other reading posing for mums magazine

Nurseries often frame babies’ learning and teaching around three areas:

  • Communication and Language
  • Physical Development
  • Social and Play Development

 

Communication and Language

Babies are intensely motivated to understand the world and communicate with it. They respond to sound and rhythm even before birth and within a few weeks they can distinguish familiar voices. Babies signal their interest through squeals, gurgles, squeaks, laughter, crying and mimicking and if their language is to develop, they will need frequent, close contact with an interested adult who will pay close attention to their attempts to communicate.

Babies like to check out adult responses by directing their attention to the adult’s face. They also like different types of music, sounds and rhythms, lullabies and songs – including those familiar from home songs repeated over again. The intonation of story language, the repetition and anticipation of familiar rhymes and phrases are a source of great enjoyment and learning. As the child gets older and begins to use very simple language, even more attention needs to be paid to their ways of communicating and patience given to their efforts.  Children need genuine opportunities for two-way exchanges, so they learn about turn taking.  They need to be allowed to lead the conversation sometimes with an adult who will listen to them and be interested in what excites them as well as introducing them to new topics of conversation.  They will drift away from adults who do all the talking and aren’t interested in what they have to say.

 

Physical Development

Babies need plenty of space to exercise their large muscles and physical play with adults is a never-ending source of delight. Young babies are quickly bored and need novel stimulus to attract their attention such as people, sounds, objects, movements and sensations.

Nurseries must understand how a baby learns through actions and interactions with people and objects around them. They don’t respond well to pastel colours or too much plastic but love a black and white area with warm materials such as fur, velvet, ribbon and hard shiny objects.  They also love a mirror so they can watch themselves.

As babies turn into toddlers, they need an appropriate physical environment and encouragement to develop basic movements such as rolling, crawling, standing, toddling, and balancing. As children become increasingly competent and mobile, they need space to develop greater control, co-ordination and mobility.

Babies need ways to practice manipulative skills which lead to greater independence and confidence. For example, the ability to handle cutlery, pour water, fasten buttons, tie their shoes and hold a pencil. Early awareness of size and shape is based on what can be reached and fitted into the mouth or hand and all of these active and personal explorations are the basis of mathematical learning. As babies develop, they need many more objects of different textures and material for picking-up, handling, twisting and turning, banging, scrunching-up and pulling etc. We call this ‘Treasure baskets’ in the nursery as they are filled with household objects chosen carefully to explore texture, shape and size. It demolishes the view that babies need soft toys!  What’s more, babies delight in their sensory learning and the importance of corn flour, sand, water, clay and dough stimulates movement which is essential to their skills of physical development.

mum playing with babies and toddlers posing for mums magazine

Social and Play Development

Babies are very sociable, loving and curious about each other and this is much more likely within trusting and secure relationships with close and protective adults who encourage them to be interested in their surroundings. Babies need a close relationship with one or two constant adults for their healthy development. In a nursery, this is called a key-person system. This is a member of staff who will pay particular attention to the baby, complete observations, asks parents about likes, dislikes, worries and tracks the baby’s progress which is later shared at parent meetings.

Social play is also developed through the nursery routine and the environment. The pattern of the day is important for babies to know what comes next as familiarity builds confidence. There will be lots of eating and washing hands and attending the bathroom! This becomes even more important when babies turn into toddlers and start to become very independent.

Babies are developing quickly, and they all go through development phases as well as building patterns of thinking, known as schema. Good baby staff are trained to understand attachment theory and the power of socialisation. This can help children build social skills to work through the stages of separation anxiety and help form protective, secure and trusting relationships. Sadly, babies who persistently fail to get attention from an adult become withdrawn, passive and despairing and they stop looking for friendship in adults. Babies learn to play by being around fun, sensitive and loving adults who will introduce them to more sophisticated, complex and sustained activities.  The adult needs to be able to pace the play, add more toys, increase the timing of the activity and support the child sensitively throughout the experience.  Social games help babies begin to understand the complexities of making friends through learning such skills as turn taking, offering toys to their friends and watching what is happening so they can imitate it later on.

Good nurseries recognise that babies love to see the connection between home and nursery and that’s why you see family books or photos of family members on the wall in the Baby Area or as part of their library. Babies thrive when there are trusting relationships between their parents and the nursery which is why it is also important that parents can visit and spend time in the nursery beyond pick up and drop off times.

Whilst I could write for days about my love for babies, I find it fascinating that scientists are now discovering how young children develop emotionally and intellectually, and are beginning to realise that from birth babies already know a staggering amount about the world around them. With this in mind, you may wish to check out some of my favourite thinkers about the subject of babies. Watch any of the TED talks from Patricia Kuhl or Alison Gopnik or read books by Alice Sharp and Suzanne Zeedyk and you will soon understand the glory of babies and their stunning development.

baby and toddlers eating posing for mums magazine

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