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Every parent wonders “Is this normal?” “Should I be worried?” “How long do I wait?”

No matter how old your child is, these are the questions that will run through your head, usually late at night when you already are having trouble sleeping. But parents of infants and toddlers think these thoughts the most.

So how can you tell? What are the red flags you should keep an eye out for? What things that might seem like red flags are actually things you don’t need to worry about?

But first, let’s keep some things in mind:

Parents have very good imaginations. Your ability to imagine bad things probably increased hugely as soon as you found out you were pregnant. So remember that.

It’s so easy to imagine scary outcomes that we forget that most children are pretty healthy and most kids never have anything like a serious issue. We hear about children who have awful problems, not because those problems are common but because they are uncommon. They’re news. They make a good story.

So keep things in perspective. Watch and wait. Take notes. Avoid jumping to conclusions.

Also, keep in mind that serious issues usually come in bundles… if there is just one thing that seems delayed, it’s usually okay to wait and see if everything else seems fine. But if you are worried about several areas of development at the same time, then there might be something going on.

All that being said, here are some things to watch for and things you probably don’t need to worry about:

0 to 3 months: it’s all about the senses. Does your child seem to see, hear, and react in ways that match fully functioning sensory equipment? But generally it’s not a problem if a child doesn’t seem to sleep much or cries a good bit. Babies do these things.

4 to 12 months: it’s about emerging social and physical skills. Does your child smile at others, seem to notice things around him, roll over and sit up? Don’t worry if your child isn’t walking independently by one year or isn’t talking.

13 to 24 months: physical abilities take center stage, along with language development. Does your child pull herself to stand and communicate by gesture and babbling? Don’t worry too much, though, if she’s still having trouble with walking and talking. Don’t worry either if she walks before she crawls; this isn’t all that unusual.

Two to Three years: independence should be developing by this point. Does your child walk, talk, and get along well with other children? Don’t worry, though, if only family members can understand what your child says or if he throws tantrums, is shy or is a picky eater. These are all normal for this age.

What Should You Do About Red Flags?

Keep a journal or log. Write down what you see (or what you see instead of what you think you should see) and be sure to date your entries. See if, after a week or two, things get better or you see some progress.

Talk with your child’s doctor. If you need to, write down your question before you go to the office, so you remember what you want to say. Write down what the doctor says. If it helps, have someone else go along with you to take notes. Ask questions if you don’t understand or if you think the doctor doesn’t understand. If you don’t think you’re getting the right answer, get a second opinion. If there really is a problem, then early intervention is important. Don’t delay.

If you consult the Internet, use only reliable sources. WebMD and the American Academy of Pediatrics are good. If you conduct a search, look for sources that end in .edu or .gov, then for .org.  Avoid most websites that end in .com – or at least read those with caution.

Keep in mind that most developmental detours are easily corrected and most children grow up with very few problems. Knowing this should help you feel more confident as a parent and more able to relax.

There’s a lot of pressure right now for preschool kids to learn academic stuff. This pushes traditional play activities into the background but that’s a mistake. It’s important for parents to stick up for their children’s right to play without any sort of obvious goal. Here’s why…

What very small children learn through “just play”

They learn how a ball works, what makes a noise and what doesn’t. They are learning about things. How they work, how they feel and taste and sound and smell. How they look from different angles.

They are also learning about people. What family members like, what they don’t like. What other kids do if you hit them. What their faces look like just before something new happens. What people say and what their words mean.

And, they are learning about themselves. They’re learning how their bodies move and how to work them. They’re learning how they feel when different things happen and how to identify and name those feelings. They’re learning what they can do easily and what’s difficult. They are learning how to try things and figure things out.

There’s a lot of really basic information little kids have to soak up in the first few years of life.  It’s tempting to overlook all this and think it’s not important. But these are essential building blocks of the more complex learning that’s coming. Before kids can learn to read, they have to know how books work – that there’s a front and a back and pages in between. Everything you can think of is like this: built on basic learning that happens when children are very, very small.

How very small children learn…

These sorts of essential, basic understandings are learned by living.  Nobody actually sits down and teaches kids this stuff in any sort of academic way.  Sure, we might read to our kids or show them how to build a block tower and knock it down again… but we do this with them, not to them. We’re showing them things we think they might enjoy.

And some things children can only learn on their own, like how to draw with a crayon or climb up an obstacle. They can only learn some things by experience. Because these things are learned by living, it’s important to give children lots of living time.

What small children need to have in order to learn

There is nothing to buy. You can buy things, of course. But no toy is vital and no toy can do the learning for your child or can teach her things all on its own. No matter what anybody says or what you hear in any advertisement, there is no toy or gizmo you must buy for your child.

What children do need are things to pick up and carry around, stack on top of each other, and hide inside. They need things that are safe to play with – no small parts, no lead paint, no sharp edges – but just about anything around the house can qualify as a good toy – and as a learning tool.

Blocks. Empty boxes. Stuffed toys. Cars. Dolls. Balls. Board books. Kids can learn just about everything they need to know from these simple toys. Water. Sand. Things to climb onto. Things to climb into. Things to stand behind and push. These provide important learning opportunities too. To become very, very smart, kids need very, very little.

Then, children need time to play and freedom to explore. There is no right way to do things. Nothing is forbidden, except, of course, hurting people or pets and deliberately destroying things. Small children want to know “what can I do with this?” “What will happen if I drop it?” “Will it roll or stack or slide?” It’s important to let them find out.

Your role in your small child’s learning

You do have a role, an important role. Here are six ways you get involved in teaching your child through play.

Play alongside. Get down on the floor or get out in the yard with your child. There’s no need to do anything special, just enjoy the activity on its own terms. You may certainly point out a cool thing you discover, but be careful to not insist your child learn how to do what you’re doing. She is learning her own stuff.

Show new ideas. After a toy has been around for a while you might try playing with it in a new way. Demonstrate that there’s more than just one way to do anything. And watch your child as well. He may come up with a nifty new idea that you haven’t thought of.

Talk about the play. When you talk about the play, explaining things or remarking on how something happened, your child learns a couple different things. She learns some new words. She learns concepts like “on,” “under,” “after,” “beside.” And she learns that what happens in the play can be described in a first-next-last sort of way. All this develops your child’s thinking ability and her literacy skills. Talking about the play is one of the most important things you can do.

Ask questions. Ask, “what do you think will happen if we push it this way?” Ask, “what happened there? I didn’t see it.” Ask questions and let your child tell you. He will have to find the right words to describe things and put words in the right order to make sense. He will have to take into account what you know and what you couldn’t know that he has to tell you. Again, language skills and cognitive skills are built this way.

Embrace the mess. There may be mess. Playing in sand gets sand in the house. Water spills and gets all over kids’ shirts. Toys get scattered. Do not forbid your child to play because you’re worried about the mess it might make. Factor in the time it will take to put things away and find spaces for play that can survive the sorts of messes children make. Keeping things neat and clean doesn’t do much for your child’s development.

Be sure of your ground.

With all the pressure on academics, your friends and family may not understand the value of free play. But you do. You know that preschoolers don’t really need lessons or flash cards and workbooks. Time devoted to those sorts of things is time taken away from what is really important to the preschool child: messing about with real stuff and talking about it.

Let your child grow and explore in unscripted ways. That’s how you create a true smarty.

Kindergarten teachers will tell you: some kids start school ready to learn and some start school way behind. The difference, obviously, is what happens at home in those first five years. But what makes that difference? What should parents of toddlers and preschoolers be doing to give their kids every advantage possible?

The answer is pretty simple and also inexpensive. No need to spend money on educational toys or enroll in costly classes. Instead, here are the keys:

1.  Talk with your child – a lot. Talk about what you’re going to do and where you’re going to go. Talk about what happened today and what will happen tomorrow. There’s a huge difference in just the number of words little kids hear during the day – make sure your child hears a lot.

2.Turn off the TV. Television does not do your child any good. And if your kid is watching television, you and she are not talking together or doing interesting things. Listening to television doesn’t count in that “number of words” thing. The less television the better.

3. Listen to your child. When your child says something, listen all the way through. Don’t interrupt him or finish his sentences or hurry him along. Don’t argue and don’t correct him. If your kid is going to know a lot of words when he goes to kindergarten he has to hear them – and he has to say them. “Talking with your child” means listening too.

4. Do interesting things together. Go outside, walk around the block, go to the playground, play in the house, cook together, shop together, do stuff. And while you’re doing stuff, ask questions. Talk about what you see and what’s happening. Children develop their intelligence by messing around with things and ideas. If your kid likes electronic gizmos, really limit her time with them. Video games and handhelds only develop one sort of thinking. Your child needs more than that.

5. Read together. Read signs, books, labels, the backs of cereal boxes, the directions on a microwave meal… everything. And let your child see you reading. Reading isn’t just something people do in school. Make sure your child knows that reading is the gateway to fun stories and useful information.

What we’ve learned about brain development is this: we get the brains we need for how we spend our time. Make sure your child spends his time talking, reading, and messing around with real stuff. The years from birth to age five are hugely important. Help your child make the most of them!