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Explore toddler brain function and how they acquire physical and cognitive abilities.

How Toddlers Learn

Your child's brain growth and development has been advancing rapidly from the very moment that he was conceived. He has been amassing incredible amounts of information, creating brain connections called synapses. They are crucial because they transmit brain impulses that control body functions, thinking, feeling, learning, memory, and language. Thousands upon thousands of synapses are formed by everyday experiences. For example, your toddler is excitedly exploring a new toy. While doing so, his brain cells are rapidly establishing new synapses. Toddlers' brains will generate many more synapses than needed for good brain functioning. Synapses that are used frequently will be strengthened and remain. Those that are not will eventually disappear. Simple gestures such as hugging and reading to your toddler encourage the growth and strengthening of brain connections.
An important aspect of early development involves increasing the connections to neurons in the front part of the brain, particularly the area called the prefrontal cortex. These connections start to increase toward the end of the first year and continue until the end of adolescence. The prefrontal cortex is sometimes called the area of our "Executive Functions" because it is involved in much goal-directed behaviour such as organizing activities, planning, problem-solving, and evaluation of our own behaviours. Toddlers show beginning signs of executive functioning when they slowly and carefully try to match a set of puzzle pieces to a puzzle board.
Your toddler develops his physical skills and cognitive abilities in parallel. Cognitive growth doesn't happen all at once, and some forms occur earlier and some later. Keep in mind that there is a wide range in typical toddler development and that all children reach milestones at different times. Physical development at this stage is centred on walking, while cognitive focuses on processing newly-acquired knowledge so that it makes sense and discovering a sense of self (his own body and name, "I," "me," and "mine", which usually occurs between 18 and 24 months). Think of cognition as a multipurpose word that includes:

  • Paying close attention to a book or game
  • Understanding the meaning of words and phrases such as "big boy"
  • Remembering a family rule
  • Figuring out the layout of his room
  • Understanding how objects relate to each other (like a spoon to a bowl)
  • Simple problem solving (use a toy rake to push or pull a ball that rolled under a couch)
  • Distinguishing real from "make-believe"

Why is Nutrition Important?

Proper nutrition is absolutely critical to a toddler’s healthy development. Without it, he will not have the energy or nutrients he needs to satisfy his ever-increasing dietary needs. Nourish his sound development with adequate amounts of wholesome, nutritious foods from the four food groups. Consult Nutrition for Toddlers for more information.