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|Two boys are silhouetted against the sky as they climb on a cubicle metal structure in the main square of the town of Glines, Havana province, Cuba.|
During the early years of childhood, especially the first three, babies and young children learn more quickly and develop more rapidly than at any other time, particularly if they receive love and affection, attention, encouragement and mental stimulation, as well as nutritious meals and good healthcare. The brain of the young child is extraordinarily receptive – during key developmental periods, some parts of a child’s brain can nearly double in size in a year. But if the brain does not receive appropriate stimulation, various aspects of the child’s learning potential may be undermined.
Psycho-social and cognitive development sit at the front end of a lifetime of human development, in which children learn to handle ever more complex levels of thinking, feeling and relating to others. Such development involves moving from simple to complex, and from dependent to autonomous behaviour which enables a child to function in a particular setting, adjust to new settings, and transform the settings in which he or she lives. A more roundly developed child is more likely to survive and thrive, to be able to participate actively in life’s events and to become empowered to change the world.
The most important way children develop and learn is through interaction with others. The more often parents and caregivers talk and respond to the child, the quicker he or she learns. Parents or caregivers should talk, read or sing to infants and young children. Even if children are not yet able to understand the words, these early ‘conversations’ develop their language and learning capacities.
Boys and girls have the same physical, mental, emotional and social needs. Both have the same capacity for learning. And both have the same need for affection, attention and approval.
Play is key to learning and development. Playing builds children's knowledge and experience and helps develop their curiosity and confidence. Children learn by trying things, comparing results, asking questions and meeting challenges. Play develops the skills of language, thinking, planning, organizing and decision-making. Stimulation and play are especially important if the child has a disability.
Girls and boys need the same opportunities for play and interaction with all family members - including the father.
Family members and other caregivers can help children learn by giving them simple tasks with clear instructions, providing objects to play with and suggesting new activities, but without dominating the child's play. For example, by watching the child closely and following her or his ideas.
Caregivers need to be patient when a very young child insists on trying to do something unaided. Children learn from trying until they succeed. As long as the child is protected from danger, struggling to do something new and difficult is a positive step in the child's development.
All children need a variety of simple materials to play with that are suitable for their stage of development. Water, sand, cardboard boxes, wooden building blocks, and pots and lids are just as good as toys bought from a shop. Children are constantly changing and developing new abilities. Caregivers should notice these changes and follow the child's lead to help her or him develop more quickly.
Parents and caregivers need to know the major milestones that show the child is developing normally. They also need to know when to seek help and how to provide for a caring and loving environment for a child with a physical or mental disability.