Little Leaps Fosters Brain Development


Editor’s Note: This is the fourth in a series of articles highlighting the results of the Little Leaps program through the Southern Illinois University School of Medicine, Hillsboro Area Hospital and the Hillsboro Community Child Development Center. 

These resources were developed to help engage parents in interactions with their young children to foster brain development.

Several years ago, the Hillsboro Community Child Development Center entered a partnership with Hillsboro Area Hospital and Southern Illinois University School of Medicine’s Department on Population Science and Policy, to work on enhancing brain development in small children in rural areas, to keep them from falling behind children in more urban areas.

The program utilized “brain bags” full of common, household items that parents could play with their children to improve brain development. 

HCCDC preschool teachers Meghan Maretti and Shelby Martincic helped to implement the Little Leaps program in their classrooms.

“Children begin learning at home long before they ever reach the classroom,” Martincic said. “Parents play a critical role in supporting early childhood learning and school readiness.” 

Many of the things children need to learn are not necessarily incorporated into a daily routine, but using Little Leaps allows parents to help their children stimulate different parts of the brain and keep the brain active in all areas. 

Supporting parents’ efforts to help their children develop during the preschool years improves school readiness as well.

“The activities help the parents think outside the box and come up with simple ideas that can be done at home,” Maretti said. “The more a parent engages with their child in meaningful play, the more it encourages learning.”

Activities like the ones in the Little Leap program not only encourage brain development, but help children be excited about learning.

The following are ideas for children ages three to four. Many of the items are easily found in the home and these tips help stimulate brain development. Each activity also has corresponding “brain development” information so parents can learn more about their child’s development as they play.

Three to Three 

and a Half

Items in the “brain bags” for preschoolers ages three to three and a half years old included counting bears, letter activity, muffin tin, nuts and bolts, playground cones and shapes memory game.

Counting is an important skill in brain development, and parents can use counting bears to help them improve that skill. They can work on teaching their children to count the bears and then put them into piles of one, two and three. Following up with questions, like “how old are you?” and “how many people are in our family?” will help children understand number concepts. For more fun, put two different colored bears on the table and cover them with a cup or a napkin. Pick a color and ask the child where that bear is hiding. Then take turns hiding the bears.

Preschoolers also need to start learning their letters. In a letter activity book, parents and children can select a page to do together. Start by talking about the sound the letter makes and have children practice making that sound. Then, name as many things (people, objects, animals) that start with that letter. Children can also use stencils to make the letter on a separate piece of paper and parents can put the paper up for display.

Using a muffin tin, parents can count out loud the number of bears that match each muffin cup label. They can also put a different colored bear in several cups and ask the child to match it. Have the child find other toys that can be placed in the muffin tin and practice counting as objects are added.

Large nuts and bolts can also be a great tool for brain stimulation. Parents can allow children to look at and touch the toys and help them work to put them together. Parents can talk about things that use nuts and bolts, like drawer handles or car tires. For more fun, put tape on the end of a piece of yarn and have children slide the nuts onto it.

For outdoor fun, grab some playground cones and let the children set them up in an open space. Together, decide on a fun action, like jumping over, skipping around or crawling between. Have a race and practice counting by timing each other. Use the cones to make a goal to kick a ball or run through.

With a shapes memory game, parents can look through the cards and talk with their children about the different shapes. Ask the child to match pairs, and then mix them up and turn them over. Take turns flipping cards and trying to find a match. Using the cards to sort shapes is another fun way to play.

Three and a Half to Four

Common items in the “brain bags” for three and a half to four-year-old children include alphabet blocks, bubbles, foam beads, kinetic sand, beach toys and lettering stencils.

Using the alphabet blocks, show children how to build towers. Start with simple ones, and ask children to make a tower just like it. As an added challenge, build another tower, but then take it down before the child builds it, and ask them to build it from memory. Encourage the child to take on the role of “teacher” and build a tower for the parents to follow.

Bubbles are a fun tool outside or in the bathtub. Parents can make large and small bubbles and talk about the difference in size. They can also blow them high into the air and encourage children to run and pop them. Show children how to gently blow bubbles, and be patient as he or she tries. As an added skill, practice counting the bubbles the child makes.

Foam beads have lots of uses to stimulate brain development, things like counting beads, sorting by color or putting the beads into piles of one, two and three. Parents can help children put the beads on pipe cleaners, tie them shut and use the bracelets to practice counting.

Using kinetic sand and beach toys, allow the child to play with the sand on a smooth surface. Help them practice making shapes in the sand. Show them how to push the sand flat and use a finger to make a design. For more fun, compare the weight of kinetic sand (which is very heavy) to other household items, like flour and sugar.

Find some paper and pencil for children to use lettering stencils to practice writing their letters. Use the pencil to practice writing names, like mom and dad. As the child writes individual letters, parents should say the sound the letter makes and think of words that begin with that letter. Make sure to display the child’s work in the home.

These tips and other ideas are available online at

“When engaging and interacting with your child, it enhances social skills through parent and child connection,” said Martincic.


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