A child’s first five years lay the foundation for the rest of her life. Her first relationships, environments and experiences shape how her brain develops. Here are five simple tips proven to help parents and caregivers boost your child’s learning, behavioural skills and health.

1. Encourage early learning for a head start at school

Our brains are built over time. When we’re babies, construction is in overdrive: a baby’s brain cells make 700 to 1,000 new connections every second. By the time we’re three years old, our young brain is still twice as active as an adults.

This period of active brain development is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity - the more skills children acquire early on, the better they learn later. Psychologists have found that, when learnt early, skills like regulating their emotions and actions give children a head start at school: for example, by helping a child ignore background noise in the classroom and focus on solving a problem. 

Here are some easy ways to start learning early:
  • Something as simple as playing with a rattle can stimulate learning: slowly move colourful items for your baby to see and reach for, or help them follow an object with their eyes.
  • Get the most out of your everyday play by asking questions. When you’re looking at picture books together or playing hide and seek, ask about the pictures they see or where you’ve hidden items.
  • Cut out simple pictures of familiar things, people and animals. Try to get pictures with different colours, textures, scenes and faces. Talk about the pictures as your baby looks at them. 
  • Playing with every object they can find will come naturally to your child. It’s for a good reason - that’s how children experiment to learn about the world around them. You can help by making sure they have access to safe and clean household items to handle, bang and drop. 
A baby’s greatest power - the rapid development of her brain - is also her greatest vulnerability. Deprivation and stress can stop a child developing skills they’ll need for a lifetime. In Belize, mother-of-two Keisha discovered the impact of focusing on a child’s first years. “When Andrew was five, he told me he couldn’t read,” says Keisha. “I cried that night - it broke my heart. But since having Alishia, I am much more aware of what she needs as a child.” 
Three-year-old Alishia plays with her mother Keisha at their home in Belize City. Keisha is making sure her daughter gets the right start with nurture, play and learning. © UNICEF/UN033867/LeMoyne

These early moments will have a profound a profound effect on Alishia’s future. With her mother’s help, she’s using her growing mind to develop a vocabulary beyond her years. “You can’t get those early years back,” says Keisha. “With a lot of hard work, Andrew is now doing well in school and I’m so proud of him, but he’s struggled and that struggle could’ve been prevented.” 

2. Provide a playtime challenge for a brain boost

Playtime with attentive and nurturing caregivers is invaluable for a child’s development.

One proven method of using play to advance learning is called scaffolding: when a parent or caregiver gently nudges their children towards success at a task beyond their ability. For example, a mother could help her two-year-old son build a tower by pointing him towards building blocks of the correct size. As long as caregivers keep changing challenges based on their child’s development, scaffolding can help children gradually solve problems independently.
At a local beach in Belize, Orin reaches out for his father’s hand. Positive relationships like this will help Orin build the skills he needs to learn and grow. © UNICEF/UN035780/LeMoyne

Four-year-old Orin loves playtime at the beach with his father. It’s also developing his brain for a bright future. “We must prepare children for school long before they arrive in the classroom,” says his father, a preschool teacher in Belize. “Only then are they able to benefit fully from the teachings.” 

This loving and stimulating environment has jumpstarted Orin’s young mind, helping him develop the curiosity and vocabulary he’ll need to keep exploring the world as he grows. 

According to Harvard University researchers, secure and trusting relationships with his parents could also minimise Orin’s stress during negative life experiences and prevent or reverse the damaging effects of long-term toxic stress.
© UNICEF/UN013172/Al-Issa
Two young Syrian children sit in rubble Two young Syrian children sit in rubble
Two young Syrian children sit in rubble

War can stay with a child forever

​Prolonged stress can be toxic to a child’s brain and harm their attention, memory, emotions and learning ability. UNICEF depends on donations to reach children in crisis with safe spaces to play, learn and recover. Your donation could give children the toys and art materials they need to play safely in the middle of a crisis.


3. Building blocks can be so much more

To you, they’re building blocks. To a child, they’re a castle. For her brain, they’re tools that stimulate learning. Simple toys can teach babies and toddlers complex lessons. Dropping a rattle can teach them how objects fall. Banging a bowl with their spoon can show them how to make a noise. Hitting a tower of blocks with their hand can help them understand cause-and-effect.

The impact of play ripples through childhood. One study links building blocks with higher language scores for children in middle and low-income families. Another found disadvantaged children who participated in a play programme for two years scored higher than their peers on cognitive tests at ages 11, 12, 17 and 18, as well going on to earn 25% more in later life.

4. Acting now stops kids acting out later

Just like physical toys, dramatic play uses a child’s imagination, storytelling and problem-solving skills. Pretending to be a doctor, teacher or parent develops the skills a child needs to read, write and communicate verbally. In Canada, preschool lessons that included role-play were found to improve children’s abilities to resist distractions, use information and adjust to change.
When her mother is at work, 3-year-old Alishia helps her aunt and grandmother with daily chores. She likes helping out so much, she plays with toy kitchen utensils by herself. With the focused help of her mother, Alishia’s vocabulary is so advanced she’s having an impact on the language skills of her older relatives. © UNICEF/UN033869/LeMoyne

5. When children talk, pay attention

Before they say a word, children learn from what is being said to them. When parents and caregivers respond to a baby’s cry, smile or coo, it helps their brains build social and communications skills. Babies then copy the sounds and actions of the people around them, building knowledge by connecting words together in webs of meaning.

Stanford University psychologists found that toddlers with parents and caregivers who spoke to them were better at processing language at 18 months old and knew more words by the time they reached two years old. 

Besides teaching words in isolation, parents and caregivers can also facilitate word learning by paying attention to a child’s interests and talking about things that have engaged them. As toddlers learn to talk, asking questions can help more than giving instructions. Positive talk from a caregiver can have a long-term impact: psychologists found that a child who hears positive talk at two-years-old can better control their impulses when they’re six.
Ms. Flores spends each day helping her granddaughter Allizon grow with the play, care and interaction her young brain needs. While Allizon’s mother works, the pair explore nature and go about everyday chores, nurturing skills that Allizon will use for a lifetime. “If anything happened to this girl, I would die,” Mrs. Flores says protectively. © UNICEF/UN032057/LeMoyne

Help protect children growing up in danger

Millions of children are growing up in conflict and crisis. They live under constant stress, miss out on school and lose the chance to be a child. Without a nurturing and stimulating environment, these children could develop behavioural problems, struggle to control anxiety and have trouble learning and growing up healthy.

That’s why UNICEF runs Child-Friendly Spaces - places in refugee camps and emergency zones where children can play, learn and recover safely from the stress of disaster. Last year, UNICEF and our partners reached 2 million children in countries like Syria, South Sudan and Nigeria with psychosocial support but our teams are stretched to the limit. Your donation could help reach children in the middle of a humanitarian emergency with an Early Development Kit full of puzzles, art materials and toys or other life-saving supplies like safe water, nutrition and warm blankets. 
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