A parent or caregiver is the best toy for children 0-36 months

Many light-up or electronic toys for babies and toddlers have a predicable response to an action taken by him or her.  If a baby shakes an electronic rattle, the toy will beep and light up.  If a toddler opens a door on a battery-driven barn, a cow will pop out and say “moo.” Sometimes a single action can cause a limited number of “random” electronic responses, such as when a button on a toy phone is pressed and the baby or toddler can hear a variety of responses (e.g., “Hi, it’s Daddy” or “Call you later.”). These types of toys are good for stimulating a child’s senses for sights, sounds and textures.  They are great for learning about simple cause and effect.  It’s not that these toys which integrate the senses and motor skills at the same time are bad, of course. They are entertaining, for a while, and babies and toddlers do learn from them.  However, they are not good for learning about unpredictable responses that arise from specific actions, which is a skill they need to be ready for preschool and beyond.  When babies and toddlers go to school, they must deal with a variety of people who will make a variety of unpredictable responses in the environment.  Being able to observe, manage, work through and learn from one’s own and others’ unpredictable responses and actions is crucial for a child’s success in school.

One problem with the single action/single response or single action/random response toys is they are toys for watching and experiencing passively rather for exploring and making complex brain connections during play.  There is limited discovery about the toy beyond the actions the toy elicits and the response(s) it provides.  These toys do not foster skills needed to be successful in a 21st century classroom, such as curiosity, flexibility, problem solving or critical thinking.

The best toys that give babies and toddlers the chance to experience their world more fully and help them learn school readiness skills are those that allow them to shape their own play in order to make their own discoveries.  Objects in the child’s environment that are safe and age-appropriate can be considered “toys” that build these skills.  A spoon can be banged, mouthed or dropped.  It can be banged on a pot, the floor, the chair or the highchair, and it will make a different sound on each place it is banged. A baby or toddler can shake the spoon, listen and then stop.  He can bang it quietly, listen and stop, and can then bang it loudly, listen and stop.  She can drop it, listen and stop.  Each time a child goes through the steps of doing, listening, looking and thinking (while stopping), he or she is processing sensory information, integrating it in his or her mind, and making thousands upon thousands of brain connections that will prepare him or her for school.

According to neuroscientist Audrey van der Meer, a professor at the Norwegian University of Science and Technology (NTNU), another “toy” that can build brain connections is a baby or toddler’s own body.  When a baby or toddler uses his own body in play (e.g., grabbing and sucking on his toes, kicking his legs, making sounds), the child is learning that he can entertain himself, that he is powerful enough to satisfy his own needs, and he can work hard to get done what he wants to get done through practice and problem solving.  A toddler who knows the joy of playing with her own body movements as she crawls, bounces, jumps and steps on the stairs is one who has a great attitude about controlling her body while having fun and problem solving. SciencyDaily.com tells us that “van der Meer believes that even the smallest babies must be challenged and stimulated at their level from birth onward, need to engage their entire body and senses by exploring their world and different materials, both indoors and out and in all types of weather” as well as that van der Meer “emphasizes that the experiences must be self-produced; it is not enough for children merely to be carried or pushed in a stroller.”

All that said, what is the very best toy for them?  You, the parent!  As a parent plays with a baby or toddler, the play is transformed into something even more important and worthwhile.  It is transformed from play for play’s sake and into play that teaches and guides, as well as play that observes a child on his or her developmental journey. It is fun and brings joy to all participants as well as helps parents know when there is the possibility of a concern or a developmental delay.  Play that involves a parent is multi-faceted, multi-directional and multi-sensory for the baby and toddler with a partner who knows him best.  It turns play into something solitary and uni-directional into a cooperative, social experience in which unpredictable responses that arise from specific actions taken by each participant in the play build crucial brain connections.  To be sure, the “parent-as-toy” concept is irreplaceable for play that is best for learning about how people respond, what happens next after they respond and how that has an effect on the play or the people involved.


Bootstrap parenting utilizes unused opportunities to empower parents to build school readiness in babies and toddlers

In the business world, bootstrap financing utilizes unused opportunities that can be found within a company by simply managing finances better.  According to the website Entrepreneur.com, “bootstrap financing is probably one of the best and most inexpensive routes an entrepreneur can explore when raising capital.”

In the not-so-far-away past, the saying “pull oneself up by one’s bootstraps” was very meaningful to Americans.  Defined as the ability to “improve your situation by your own efforts,” according to The Phrase Finder, the phrase has come to epitomize the American spirit of ingenuity, freedom and individualism.  The Phrase Finder tells us that the phrase was known by the early 20th century and that James Joyce alluded to it in “Ulysses,” 1922:

“There were others who had forced their way to the top from the lowest rung by the aid of their bootstraps.”

In the world of babies and toddlers, the concept of bootstrap parenting was created by Operation Ready by 3 to mean that parents can utilize unused opportunities, found within themselves, by identifying and managing their skills better.  It is one of the best and most inexpensive routes that a parent can explore when raising babies and toddlers in order to raise a child who will be ready of school by the age of 36 months.  To be sure, bootstrap parenting has as much to do with raising babies and toddlers as it does with investing in them and everyone around them to the benefit of all Americans.

To use another concept in a creative sense from the world of finance, babies and toddlers can be considered a form of capital.  Capital is most frequently thought of as wealth or other assets owned by a person or company.  Of course, parents do not own their children and, as the saying goes, “our children are only ever lent to us.” But, we can think of babies and toddlers as assets and capital in the lives of the people who care for them as well as in the lives of people in their neighborhood, city, state, America, or the world as a whole.  If a baby thrives, is healthy and develops well, he will go on to be an asset in his home, his community and his country.  If a toddler’s brain has been stimulated to form millions of healthy connections and has not experienced high levels of toxic stress, she will succeed in school and life and become a taxpayer, a voter, a friend, a member of a group, a global citizen, and, if she chooses, a parent.  Children are capital in the sense that they will go on to do great things for themselves and the world, if they are raised well and do well in school, are healthy and happy, and can be self-sufficient in life so that they may enjoy all the blessings of liberty.

So what does bootstrap parenting look like?  It occurs when parents to look inside themselves to discover and identify the skills they already have within, and then they use those skills when parenting their 0-36 month old children.  It happens when an individual explores one’s already-established skill set and applies the same skill set to the work of building their child’s brain connections, keeping their children safe and healthy, and readying them for preschool and beyond.  For example, if a person knows that she received “B’s” and “C’s” on tests in school, is able to play basketball, can drive a car, works as a small grocery store manager, and is able to maintain friendships, then she can take the skills involved in and necessary for those activities to the work of parenting.  If a father can identify the skills that he needs to work as a landscaper, to fix his own car, to teach Sunday school and to organize his personal items well, he can take the skills needed to accomplish those tasks to the task of raising his infant or toddler.

Let’s take the above example of the mother who was a solid student, drives herself to work to manage a small grocery store, and plays basketball with friends on the weekends.  To feel empowered and confident as a mother of an infant, she can look at the skills she had in those parts of her life and can apply them to her parenting.  She knows she is able to get herself to work on time and study for a test on a certain date, so she can be confident that she can get her baby on a schedule.  She operates a vehicle safely on her commute, so she can feel confident that she will be able to keep her baby safe when he starts to be mobile.  She can take her dribbling and shooting skills into the realm of observing her baby and getting to know him well to be sure development is on track and that there are no signs of developmental delay or disorder. She can utilize the friendship skills she already possesses to recognize her competence in building a relationship with her son.

When we show men and women that they already possess the basic skill set necessary to be a good parent, we empower them to be the best parent they can be. Even if they did not have good parent role models around them or their pregnancy was unexpected or unwanted, we can help parents see themselves for who they already are and how this self-reflection can translate well to being a great parent.  Utilizing their skill set awareness, a bootstrap parent can say “I can do this parenting thing!” and “I can improve my life, as well as my child’s life, by my own efforts.”




“And they told two friends” Ad, not Government-Dependency, is the Solution for Getting Babies and Toddlers Ready for School

Government is great for many things, including, but not limited to, protecting our God-given rights, protecting our borders, and making and enforcing laws.  It’s good for such activities as printing money and writing checks to distribute taxpayer dollars for infrastructure spending, successful government programs to help our neediest and most vulnerable, and public education.  However, as Donald Savoie writes in his article titled “What is Government Good For? It’s Time to Answer the Question,” published in 2015 by The Globe and Mail, government is “a big whale that can’t swim, that can’t keep up with the fast-changing global economy.”  He tells us that “the dominant political narrative in Anglo-American democracies over the past 30 years has been that government is slow, inefficient and costly while the private sector is dynamic and efficient.”

When it comes to the brain development of babies and toddlers for school readiness, there simply is little place for a big whale that can’t keep up.  Government solutions are slow, inefficient, costly and can’t be scaled up easily, all while babies’ and toddlers’ brains are growing at an astronomically fast pace.  Preschool, pre-K and kindergarten readiness all depend on brain development that happens between 0 and 36 months, with 80% of a child’s brain growth occurring by age 3 and 90% of his or her brain growth occurring by age 5.  Government investment and focus on the period from birth to 3 is very important, of course, but broad-scale government solutions and government dependency are not doing the job of getting babies and toddlers ready for school by the age of 36 months.

Sadly, an article titled “How Welfare Harms Kids” written in 1996 by Patrick Fagan and Richard Rector for Heritage.org, rings as true today as it did then. In their article they tell us “it is welfare dependence, not poverty, that has the most negative effect on children” and that it “plays a powerful role in promoting illegitimacy.”   Except in very limited cases, welfare and government dependency do not do right by babies, toddlers and their families.  Fagan and Rector conclude the following:  “those truly concerned with the welfare of children must seek a radical transformation of the welfare system aimed not at increasing welfare spending and enrollment, but at reducing dependence and illegitimacy.”  To be sure, more than 20 years after Fagan and Rector were already looking back 25-30 years at the failures of welfare, we are no closer to building all babies’ and toddlers’ brains for school success than we were then.  For those babies born into a life of government dependency and welfare out of the roughly 200 million babies born between 1996 and 2016 , the effects have been devastatingly negative and life-long.

If government was not the answer for those babies, toddlers and families from 1996-2016, then what is?  The answer is private organizations and individuals who are able to operate on a small, local scale using programs can be individualized to a specific person or group’s needs quickly, efficiently and in a cost-effective manner.  These organizations and people can aim to empower parents and caregivers to feel personally responsible for the outcome of the babies and toddlers in their lives.  Instead of encouraging dependence on government-approved bland or broad advice, platitudes and programs, private organizations and individuals can spend time in a community to discover what is currently working in other homes within the community, and can then facilitate meetings between those who know how to stimulate brain development in babies and toddlers for school readiness and those who need coaching and guidance to do so.  Once the information is shared from home to home by members of the community, it is easy to imagine concentric circles of community members eventually overlapping so that all babies and toddlers get the best start in life right from the beginning.

The Faberge Organic Shampoo ad from the 1970’s and 80’s  demonstrates the exponential power of social networks and virality that is needed to get the job done. The ad represents what a private sector effort of “and they told two friends” would look like for parents and caregivers of babies and toddlers who need empowering words and guidance in order to get their children ready for school by the age of 36 months.  Using the social media platforms currently available as well as “old-fashioned” person-to-person visits, phone calls, emails and text messaging, the brains of babies and toddlers could be given the age-appropriate stimulation and boosts in a matter of minutes or hours, rather than having to wait decades for a solution to arrive, potentially, from the government.  Telling two friends will always have a larger, faster effect at far less cost  and greater efficiency than any whale-of-a-government-program ever could.

Don’t Worry: There are Options for Middle Class Families with Children Ages 3-5 Years

At a pregnancy center last week, a Moroccan couple came in to request assistance for their fourth baby, due in July.  They already had a 2-year old, 3-year old and 7-year old and had arrived from Morocco 4 years ago. The father, whose English was good, explained that he worked as a bus driver for a county bus service making $60,000/year.  He spoke for the mother, who had very limited English skills and stayed home with the children.

He expressed that he and his wife, in addition to needing assistance for their baby, wanted information about pre-kindergarten programs for their 3-year old son, who would be turning 4 in August.  He stated that his $60,000/year salary was “too much” for receiving assistance from government-subsidized pre-K programs.  He stated that the family did not qualify for Head Start because of his salary.  They spoke to each other with great concern, as relayed by the father, and explained that they worried their 4-year old would not be ready for kindergarten the following year without attending an English-speaking pre-K program.

The Center on Children and Families at Brookings’ paper titled “Starting School at a Disadvantage: The School Readiness of Poor Children” tells us what we know already.  Whether it is that mothers are unmarried or the toxic stress too often associated with single parenthood and lack of resources, poor children are at serious risk for starting school less ready than their peers.  We know that poor children, by the age of 4, can be up to 18 months behind their peers developmentally for crucial school readiness skills involving language understanding and use, social-emotional skills and sensory processing skills. And, we know that the solution for increasing school readiness for children living in poverty is attending preschool.

However, for the Moroccan family above who is not poor, and so many others like them, what is the solution for their child and his school readiness? As they will not qualify for no- or low-cost quality programs, we must be able to provide real solutions to help them get their child ready to attend kindergarten and to be on equal footing with affluent as well as poor families whose children attended preschool.  Middle class families looking to build school readiness skills in their child should consider the following:

  1. Push both Republicans and Democrats to write and pass laws that support universal pre-K for all children, regardless of income level. A National Academies of Sciences reported in an article titled “Who Should pay for Preschool for the Middle Class?” estimates the total cost of  universal pre-K would run to $140 billion a year, Evidence in the report suggests such an investment would pay dividends running to the trillions of dollars in money saved on social services and raised through income taxes on higher incomes from a better educated taxpayer base.
  2. Utilize free resources at local libraries and online, such as those provided by Care.com  and Education.com.
  3. Last, but most importantly, help middle class parents feel empowered that they are a child’s best teacher and have what it takes to get their child ready for school! If there is extra money to put towards a child’s preschool education, sources such as k12, offers an online learning program called EmbarK12, which is “designed to help preschoolers from ages 3–6 prepare for Kindergarten and offers that strong academic foundation they’ll need for future years.”  The cost starts at $99/year.  Other companies, such as UPSTART and Time4Learning also offer online preschool learning options.  Some experts wonder if online preschool options are good for children, since some of the most important skills necessary to be ready for school involve developing social and emotional skills that cannot be learned online, but the overall hope is that parents will not simply put their child on the computer for hours on end for online learning.

Until there are better and more options for middle class families who cannot afford preschool for their children aged 3-5 years, offering some real solutions for families is better than no solution at all.

Parenting and Caregiving Litmus Test: How Am I Doing?

According to The Urban Child Institute, a baby’s brain at birth “already has about all of the neurons it will ever have,” “doubles in size in the first year, and by age three it has reached 80 percent of its adult volume.”  The period from birth to age 3 represents the single most crucial period of brain development in a young child’s life as crucial brain connections and super-highways are built in this time frame.  Ideally, then, parents and caregivers are spending a substantial amount of time observing and assessing children 0 to 36 months to be sure that brain development is on track.

But, do we, as parents and caregivers, spend enough time observing and assessing ourselves to be sure that we are on track to provide the best care and brain-boosting/school readiness activities as humanly possible? One of the best ways to assess ourselves is to ask questions regarding how our babies and toddlers see us, how they sense us and how they feel in our presence.

Below are some questions that can be asked of ourselves frequently (i.e., weekly or every other week) to be sure that the young children in our lives are getting what they need from us to be ready for school by the age of 3.  How would the babies and toddlers we love, raise and care for answer these questions if you posed them and the children were able to respond to you?

  1. Does my parent/caregiver love me?
  2. Do I trust my parent/caregiver?
  3. Does my parent/caregiver like me as a person?
  4. Does my parent/caregiver have my best interest at heart?
  5. Does my parent/caregiver care about what I have to say?
  6. Does my parent/caregiver teach me things?
  7. Does my parent/caregiver enjoy my company?
  8. Does my parent/caregiver find me funny or entertaining?
  9. Does my parent/caregiver feel relaxed when I am around?
  10. Does my parent/caregiver give me warnings when we are about to leave or change activities?
  11. Does my parent/caregiver stay true to his/her word?
  12. Does my parent/caregiver use a wide vocabulary with me everyday?
  13. Does my parent/caregiver smile at me often?
  14. Does my parent/caregiver encourage me to try new things?
  15. Does my parent/caregiver encourage me to try things on my own before helping me?
  16. Does my parent/caregiver allow me time to problem solve?
  17. Does my parent/caregiver give me time to complete tasks that I may do a little slower than her or him?
  18. Does my parent/caregiver allow me to take safe risks?
  19. Does my parent/caregiver allow me to fail?
  20. Does my parent/caregiver use words to reflect on my behavior or my feelings?
  21. Does my parent/caregiver model appropriate manners and ways to interact with others?
  22. Does my parent/caregiver seem to like all kinds of people, regardless of age, gender, church affiliation or skin color?
  23. Does my parent/caregiver listen to me?
  24. Does my parent/caregiver express affection with me?


If a baby or toddler would (if he/she could) answer “yes” to each of these 24 questions, there is a strong likelihood that this baby or toddler is not living in a situation of toxic stress (so damaging to brain development!) and is living in a loving, educational, nurturing environment that is preparing him or her for school by the age of 36 months.

Conversation with Babies and Toddlers Builds Language as well as Social Thinking

We’ve heard frequently in the child development news and on social media that back-and-forth communication with the zero to three crowd is extremely important for brain development and for school readiness.  We used to think that the number of words we used with babies and toddlers mattered most to their brain and language development, but now we know better:  that it’s conversation with our little ones that matters more than just reading aloud to them or “talking at” them each day.  The babies and toddlers that experience language in a continuous, flowing format of “I say something, then you say something, then I say something, etc.” is the key for stimulating a child’s brain, boosting language development and getting a child ready for school by age 3.

One might wonder why conversations matter so much.  If a child is read to or spoken to every day many times a day, why isn’t that enough? The reason is that babies and toddlers are not simply meant to words that they will eventually say themselves.  Their brains are not file cabinets in which “food words” are stored “here” and “animal words” are stored “over there,” so that when someone asks “What’s that?,” they can label the picture or the object easily by saying “apple” or “cow.”  Their brains are built to function as super-highways of connections and pathways that help them understand and use language they have stored successfully in personal relationships and in the school setting in countless ways.  If words are not learned in a context or in relationship to other people, places and things, learning and language understanding and use will always be a challenge for a child.

If we are to have conversations with babies and toddlers, we first must build and nurture relationships with them. As adults, we only learn so much from hearing a lecture or reading a book about a topic.  But, when we sit down and have multiple conversations with someone who knows well what we are trying to learn, our learning will be much deeper because the words are heard within the context of the relationship. We humans, adults as well as babies and toddlers, learn much more about our world when we are engaged with people because there is emotion involved.  If we have the chance to engage with someone over a topic and the experience is positive, emotion enters the picture and this emotion aids learning.  On the other hand, if the experience brings about negative emotions, such as fear or anger, learning is hampered.

In these verbal exchanges within a conversation and relationship, babies and toddlers learn other crucial skills that are important for school readiness and success.  Beyond learning words, they learn to coordinate their social skills, much like they learn to coordinate their muscles to crawl or run.  They learn how to talk about and reference the emotions of people in their lives and in books that are read aloud to them. Babies and toddlers also learn to think flexibly, to use declarative language and memory to imitate others, and to process information in terms of relationships between people, places and objects.  Conversing with others also allows babies and toddlers to learn to solve problems that lack clear-cut solutions by using past experiences and context to help them do so.  That is, they learn to see possibilities based on past experiences.  These examples of babies’ and toddlers’ social thinking are all learned in the context of a relationship with parents, caregivers, siblings and others around them.

So, the next time you use your words and take a turn with a baby or toddler, remember that you are not just building language skills, but you are also building social thinking skills that will support school readiness and success as well as life success!



The World Needs More Observers and Sharers: How Parents and Caregivers Make a Difference in Babies’ and Toddlers’ Lives

Writers and photographers who travel make observations and take what they see to others.  They are “noticers” and “see-ers,” as well as “share-ers,” extraordinaire!  By way of their written or spoken stories or their photos, these amazing observers share their experiences with those who have not had the same experiences or with those who have not travelled to the same place to see what they have seen and know what they have come to know.  When travel writers and photographers tell us about new people, places and things, our lives become richer because our thinking expands.  They show us new ways to think about the world around us.

Parents and caregivers are the travel writers and photographers for the under 3 set.  Babies and toddlers have not seen and have not experienced the world that parents and caregivers know about, so parents and caregivers must take what they notice and see and share it with children in order for the brain development for school readiness to happen.  When parents and caregivers observe or notice what is around them and share it with the babies and toddlers in their lives by way of pictures, objects and stories, the grown-ups build necessary brain connections in children that support expanded thinking about the world in which the children live.  Then, when these children arrive to preschool to begin learning to read, count, and think in more advanced ways, they have the background knowledge about the world around them that is necessary to succeed in a 21st century classroom.

So how can parents and caregivers accomplish what travel writers and photographers do?  First, take the time. Observing the world and sharing what we see, hear, feel, touch, taste and smell with babies and toddlers by showing them what we have observed or talking to them about is time-consuming.  But the more time that is spent, the better prepared a child will be for school.  That said, it doesn’t need to take much or all of one’s time.  Observing for 30 seconds 10 times a day only adds up to 30 minutes out of each busy day.  Short, but frequent observations and “sharings” work well for babies and toddlers due to their short attention spans.  Rather than observing and sharing observations with babies and toddlers once a week for 60 minutes or twice a day for 15 minutes at a time, parents and caregivers can observe/share once or twice every hour for 10 or so seconds with observations/sharings such as “Hey, do you see that red bird?” or “Mmmm, this ice cream is sweet and with crunchy nuts.”  Parents and caregivers can write down or take a photo of what is observed in order to share experiences with other parents/caregivers or with the child later on in his/her development.

So parents and caregivers, get out there and “observe, observe, observe” and then “share, share, share” with the babies and toddlers in your lives, just like travel writers and photographers do!