How to set up enriching learning experiences for infants and toddlers

The early years of an infant’s and toddlers life are a precious and critical time for development. Childcare providers play a crucial role in ensuring that these formative years are filled with enriching experiences that foster growth and well-being. In this blog, we’ll explore strategies from infant and toddler development expert and director of educational content at FunShine Express, Teresa Narey, on how to create a nurturing environment that supports infant and toddler development in childcare settings.

Creating developmentally appropriate learning experiences for infants and toddlers involves three main pillars; building relationships, creating a “yes” environment and flexible routines. 

Pillar 1: Building relationships

The quality of relationships in infancy and toddlerhood impacts every aspect of care. Young children learn through their relationships with you that you are a source of support, that their needs will be met, and that they are safe. The science of brain development tells us that young children are extremely impressionable. We know that our brains grow faster from birth to age three than at any other point in our lives, and a child’s early experiences and relationships stimulate neural connections that lay the foundation for emotions, language, behavior, memory, physical movement and more.

To support building relationships, it’s important to establish consistent caregiving styles within a classroom so that children and their families come to know what to expect from caregivers and that practices within the classroom stem from shared values about teaching and learning. What this means in practice is that when a team of educators work together, they handle aspects of care similarly. An article about primary caregiving and continuity of care from Zero to Three used the example of a lead educator who always gives children advanced notice before diaper changes and would expect other educators in her room to continue this practice in her absence. This way the children always know what to expect, and by extension, families come to know what to expect as well. 

Another important aspect of relationship-building is cultivating home and classroom connections that foster positive identity development. It’s easy to overlook identity development in early childhood because we expect older children to be the ones to exhibit desires for self-expression more greatly. But research tells us that babies begin making sense of the world and their social relationships as soon as they are born. So it’s important for our programs to have practices and routines that engage with children’s cultures and home lives, including practices around speaking, eating, and sleeping.

Pillar 2: Creating a “yes” environment” 

By definition, “yes” environments promote exploration, independence, and positive behavior. Creating a “yes” environment doesn’t mean that we never say no. Saying no for health and safety reasons is important. However, when we observe certain behaviors such as running in small spaces or physical aggression or find ourselves constantly correcting children, that’s a sign we need to look a little bit more closely at our space. And looking more closely at our space involves inspecting it from a child’s level, ensuring that every material within reach is safe and appropriate. This practice will allow you to identify challenges and correct them, as well as understand why children might be behaving in certain ways. For example, maybe a shelf or other structure needs to be repositioned to make an area more safe for play, rather than asking children to avoid that area altogether.

Sometimes creating a “yes” environment involves knowing upfront what our comfort level is. This could mean understanding how we feel about children using certain materials or engaging in certain types of play. When we know our limitations, we can work with our team members to establish practices that allow for us to step out and them to step in when something is occurring that is developmentally appropriate, but perhaps outside our comfort zone. A good example of this is when children engage in certain types of risky behavior. At the toddler level, risky play might include climbing, rough and tumble play, or maybe riding quickly on a tricycle. All of these activities are developmentally appropriate, and they can all bring about big feelings in some educators. It’s important to know when your limitations might impede children’s explorations. 

Pillar 3: Flexible routines 

The third and final pillar of creating developmentally appropriate experiences for infants and toddlers is having flexible routines. Young children, especially infants and toddlers, should eat, sleep, and have diaper changes as needed throughout the day, and these care routines take up significant time day-to-day. This is why flexibility is so important—each child’s eating, sleeping, and diaper changing schedule is going to vary. The experiences you offer throughout a day with young children should prioritize these unique care routines. 

In terms of offering experiences, it’s important to have an environment and rhythm that is child centered. This doesn’t preclude you from offering teacher-initiated activities, it simply means having a pulse on the children’s interests and capacities. It means knowing when they’ve had enough or maybe when it’s not the right time to start an activity. It also means allowing the time for an experience to take place. For example, allowing outdoor play to go on longer if it’s needed, or if children are really engaged in free play, allowing it to take precedence over other experiences.

What the science tells us about infant and toddler development

To understand the importance of these three pillars, it is critical to know the science behind infant and toddler development, and specifically the brain science. As mentioned earlier, our brains grow faster from birth to age three than at any other point in our lives, and a child’s early experiences and relationships stimulate neural connections that lay the foundation for a child’s healthy development and well-being. Another way of saying this is: the relationships a child experiences each day and the environments in which those relationships play out are the building blocks of the brain.

Connecting science and infant and toddler development 

While there are many things we can distill from brain science and research to support infant and toddler development, the supreme takeaway is that how we communicate with young children makes a lasting impact. The Center on the Developing Child at Harvard University focuses on the power of “serve and return” interactions to shape brain architecture. And, of course, the analogy used to describe serve and return is that our interactions with children should resemble a lively game of tennis, where the child engages in communication by serving–either a babble, coo, sign, or word–and we return positively with our interest, words, or physical affection. These back-and-forth exchanges provide the appropriate input a child needs to grow.

Serve and return interactions

The Center on the Developing Child identifies 5 steps for brain-building serve and return exchanges:

Step 1: Share the focus. When children are interested in something, they show it by making a sound, pointing, focusing on an object with their eyes, or moving their bodies excitedly as an infant or toddler might do. The key is to be attuned to what a child is noticing, because when you do this, you pick up on the serve.

Step 2: Support and encourage. You can return a child’s serve by saying a word of encouragement, engaging with a caring facial expression, making sounds, or providing support. 

Step 3: Name it. When you respond to a child’s serve by naming what they are seeing, feeling or doing, you make important connections in the brain. And this is critical for infants and toddlers because this brain building happens even before a child can understand words. When you name what is happening, you are helping the child understand the world around them and what to expect from it. Naming gives a child words to use and shows them that words are important to you.

Step 4: Take turns back and forth. Turn-taking helps children learn self-control and how to get along with others. When you return a serve, it’s important to give a child time to respond. Waiting for the child’s response gives them time to develop ideas and builds confidence and independence.

Step 5: Practice endings and beginnings. Children signal when they’re finished or ready to move on to a new activity. Sharing the focus is important in this step–it will help you notice when a child is finished and ready to move to the next activity. When we can find moments for children to take the lead, we support them in exploring their world and make more serve and return exchanges possible.

Resources to get you started 

At FunShine Express, these pillars and brain science are kept at the forefront for all curriculum development. FunShine Express offers two lines of curriculum that support educators in caring for infants and toddlers: Buttercups Babies and Buttercups.

Buttercups babies

Buttercups Babies was launched at the beginning of 2021 in an attempt to fill the need for infant-specific curriculum. It’s designed for infants ages 3-12 months and includes ideas for activities that align to children’s care routines. It provides guidance for how to have serve and return exchanges during care routines like diaper changes and feeding times. While also sharing guidance for setting up simple art and play experiences and even strategies for handling nap time and behaviors that might challenge routines such as fussiness or excessive crying due to physical discomfort.

Buttercups 

Buttercups is a curriculum for ages 1-3, though it also includes a special section with activities and guidance for infants to support multi-age environments. The Buttercups curriculum supports educators in helping young children gain continued awareness of the world around them, while also helping them begin to develop social skills, self-regulation, and literacy and numeracy skills. The emphasis is still very much on serve and return exchanges, with a greater emphasis on following the child’s lead for learning opportunities.

Infant activities in buttercups

Buttercups contains a special section for infants to support educators working in multiage environments. These sections are organized by care routine–arrival, playtime, feeding time, diaper changes, rest time, and departure–and highlight ways to connect what children are learning in the general Buttercups curriculum to caring and supporting infants. In other words, if you care for infants and toddlers at the same time, the infant activities in Buttercups help you understand how and when to include infants in activities you do with toddlers. It does, however, provide infant-specific activity suggestions as well.

Buttercups babies ‘My World’ kit
Buttercups Babies materials
Buttercups Babies ‘On the Go” kit

References

Center on the Developing Child. (2007). Serve and return. Harvard University. https://developingchild.harvard.edu/science/key-concepts/serve-and-return/

Elkins, A. (2019, February/March). Creating a “yes” environment: Supporting creativity and exploration. Teaching Young Children, 12(3). https://www.naeyc.org/resources/pubs/tyc/feb2019/supporting-creativity-exploration

Johnson, A. W., & Peterson, S. (2019). Supporting individual and community identity development in infant-toddler classrooms. Zero to Three. https://www.zerotothree.org/resource/journal/supporting-individual-and-community-identity-development-in-infant-toddler-classrooms/

Lally, J. R., & Mangione, P. L. (2017, May). Caring relationships: The heart of early brain development. Young Children, 72(2). https://www.naeyc.org/resources/pubs/yc/may2017/caring-relationships-heart-early-brain-development

Melmed, M., & Schubert K. (2017, April 27). Boosting a baby’s brain power by supporting parents and caregivers. Zero to Three. https://www.zerotothree.org/resource/boosting-a-babys-brain-power-by-supporting-parents-and-caregivers/

Theilheimer, R. (2006). Molding to the children: Primary caregiving and continuity of care. Zero to Three. https://www.zerotothree.org/resource/primary-caregiving-and-continuity-of-care/

To learn more about how HiMama supports early childhood classrooms with expert-designed, research-backed and ready to use curriculum kits, click here!

Maddie Hutchison

Maddie is a Registered Early Childhood Educator with a Master's in Early Childhood Studies. Her specialty is in Children's Rights and she is currently a Content Strategist for HiMama!