A child’s cognitive development begins with the significant stage of sensorimotor development. This stage can be defined as the phase in which cognitive connections and growth take place in the brain as a result of the interaction between sensory and motor stimulation from the environment. Renowned Swiss psychologist Jean Piaget describes this stage as one in which ‘infants are busy discovering relationships between their bodies and the environment’. While sensory skills are responsible for receiving information from the environment through our inherent senses of sight, hearing, smell, taste and touch, motor skills allow the body to express the information received and processed. This vital collaboration is a fundamental tool that forms the basis for learning.
Sensorimotor skills, in fact, start developing while the child is still in the mother’s womb and continue to develop after birth and into the first two years of infancy. At birth, a baby uses its inherent sense of sight and hearing to react to stimuli from the environment. For example, she gets startled by a loud sound and may react with a jerk. Her innate sense of hearing enables connections to be formed in the brain and the information is organised and processed to produce movement using her motor skills. The development and integration of sensory and motor skills, as she grows, is essential for the proper movement of her limbs. This coordination also allows her to learn to move her hand to her mouth, and thus, to use her sense of taste.
As a parent, you must encourage activities that help enhance your toddler’s sensorimotor skills as 75 per cent of the brain development takes place in the first six years. *Jeyalatha Martin, from Chennai, a Montessori educationist with over 25 years of experience in the field, explains that cognitive development in the first two years is most significant as it is in this period that the brain makes neural connections to form a network that can receive, store and process information. And, this happens only when the brain receives adequate stimuli that enable it to think and discover. So, once a child learns to sit, he can be given several activities that help connect his senses to understand a concept. She lists a few exercises involving materials that are easily available in our homes.
1. Sand Box: Sand is an extremely good sensorial material and can be manipulated in diverse ways. Put some beach sand in a small tray or box. Allow your child to play with it spontaneously and let her explore its texture. You could also hide small objects of different shapes (e.g. a bangle, a plastic tile or a small toy) in the sand and ask her to find them. This will enable her to use her senses of touch and sight to find the objects and discover their different shapes.
2. Refined flour Paste: Mix a little water with some refined flour and let it cook for a while till it becomes a gooey paste. Once it cools, you can ask your toddler to take a handful of the paste and rub it on chart paper. He will enjoy playing with the slop, using his sense of touch to examine its soft and smooth consistency. He can even draw in it or trace out lines and shapes. The shape or pattern made by the child can be preserved once it dries. You could even add some natural food colouring to the paste to make it more interesting. For example, you can add a bit of red to a small portion of the paste and a bit of yellow to another. Place both portions of paste in an airtight bag and close it. Then, let the child squish and squeeze the bag and watch while both colours mix to magically form another colour.
3. Water: You can use water to teach your toddler different concepts like hot and cold, less and more or empty and full. You can give her two cups and allow her to pour the water from one to the other so that she discovers the concept of volume. This action will also help improve her eye-hand coordination. Or, you can give her a small piece of wood and a coin, and ask her to drop both objects into the water. She will see that one sinks and the other floats.
4. Spices: You can place various spices like cloves, cardamom, cinnamon, pepper, fenugreek or coriander seeds in small containers with lids. Ask your child to shake each container and listen carefully to the distinctive sound each spice makes. You could also mix up a few of the spices and ask him to match the spices and place them in the correct container by using his sense of sight, smell and touch. He will also get to learn that each element has its own fragrance and smells different.
5. Magic Box / Bag: You could hide a few objects or fruits familiar to the child in a closed bag. Ask your child to put her hand in, choose an item and identify it just by touch. If it is an older child, you could blindfold her and ask her to identify the fruit by touch and smell. Or, you can place different things on her tongue like sugar, salt, lime or a pickled vegetable and ask her to pick out which is sweet, salty, sour or pungent using her sense of taste.
As a parent, you can help your toddler explore, discover and learn through these sensory experiences that can bring about enhanced development and functioning. If a child’s sensorimotor skills don’t develop properly, it will affect his ability to function normally as the brain will be unable to smoothly process and appropriately respond to the information it receives. When a child cannot respond like his peers to stimuli from his environment, it will slow down his learning. This will manifest as frustration, bad behaviour and low tolerance levels. Weak coordination of movements, clumsiness, learning disabilities and poor academic performance are also indicators of poor development of sensorimotor skills. Parents whose toddler shows any of these signs should seek the advice of professionals who will help identify and compensate for these learning disabilities. They will assess the child’s sensory skills and follow it up with supplementary exercises and activities that are essential for reinforcing the development of motor skills.
Seeing how important sensorimotor skills are to the development of your toddler’s brain, make sure you give her every opportunity to hone these skills.
*Jeyalatha Martin is Founder Director of 'Jey Kids - a fine Pre-school by Aunty Jey', Chennai