Little Leaps Offers Parental Tips


Editor’s Note: This is the first 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.

The series will continue on a weekly basis.

Four years ago, Hillsboro Area Hospital and the Hillsboro Community Child Development Center began to look for research-based ways to enhance child development in the area.

“We began to realize how it important it was to see that children in rural America had the same opportunities for development in child care,” said Rosanne Heck, director of community relations at Hillsboro Area Hospital.

The hospital would reach out to the Southern Illinois University School of Medicine’s Department of Population Science and Policy for a partnership with the day care center to make this idea a reality.

“The collaboration made sense for both of us,” said Kara Bowlin, director of external relations for SIU Medicine Department of Population Science and Policy. “The  department at its core works to solve health equity issues and narrow the gap between rural and urban families.”

Researchers at the university brought “brain bags” to the day care center with common age-appropriate items to stimulate the brain at a young age with the hope of keeping children from falling behind. Researchers have now released the results of this study, along with activities parents and caregivers can work on with children.

The following are ideas for babies up to one year old. 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 parent’s can learn more about their child’s development as they play.

Zero to Six Months

Items in the “brain bags” for zero to six months included a cloth book, keys, a mirror, a rattle and a washcloth puppet, most of which can be easily found in the home.

With a cloth book, parents are encouraged to hold their baby and read the book, as babies love to hear their parents’ voices. Parents should follow the words with their fingers, point to the pictures and talk about the pictures. If the baby should reach for the book, encourage the baby to hold it. Parents can also talk and sing with their babies, and when the baby starts to make sounds, parents can repeat the sounds back.

For a floor activity, parents can grab some keys on a ring. Sitting on the floor, parents will place the baby in their laps with the baby’s back against them. They should gently dangle the keys in front of the baby and let the baby explore the keys. The baby may drop or throw the keys as he or she is learning to release objects. For more fun, parents can supply a box or a pan that the baby can practice dropping toys into. When the baby does, parents are encouraged to clap their hands, praise the baby and have fun together.

Mirrors are another useful household item that help with brain development. Parents should hold the mirror where babies can see their reflection. They are encouraged to talk to the baby in a soothing tone and tap the mirror. As the baby turns to the mirror, parents can say the baby’s name with a smile. For more ideas, parents can gently touch and talk about the parts of the face, like the nose, ears, cheeks and more, continuing to repeat the sounds the baby makes.

Many little ones love the noise a rattle makes. Parents may gently shake the rattle near the baby’s head, and as the baby’s eyes move to the noise they might shake it a little harder and say “there it is.” Then, move the rattle to the other side of the baby’s head and encourage the baby to find it again and give praise. It’s also a good chance to put the rattle in the baby’s hand to see if he or she can hold it.

Puppets also make for fun play that can stimulate brain development. As parents put the puppet on one of their hands, they should talk to the baby and slowly move the puppet up and down. Each time the baby follows the puppet, offer praise. Then, try moving the puppet side to side or in a circle.

Seven to 12 Months

Common items in the “brain bags” for seven to 12-month-old children include chain links and a mug, musical instrument, nursery rhyme book, sensory ball, sock and fabric marker and a washcloth.

To use the chain links, parents should encourage babies to pick up a link in each hand. Parents can then put the links in a container with a lid and let the baby shake it. For more fun, parents can attach several links to a chain and attach one end to a toy or plastic cup and the other end to a car seat or high chair. Babies will enjoy a “throw and fetch” game as they throw the toy and pull it back up.

Babies will also love playing with any type of musical instrument. Parents may talk to the baby about the sounds created and how to make soft and loud sounds. Another fun option is to sing a baby’s favorite song as he or she plays with the musical instrument. Parents may also choose to hide the instrument behind their back asking the baby where it went. When they return the toy to the baby, they can encourage the baby to hide the item as well.

Snuggle up with a good book of nursery rhymes. A good tip for parents is to follow the words with their fingers as they read. Parents can also name the animals or objects on the page and sing the rhymes to their toddler.

Tummy time is another important factor for brain development. In an open area on the floor, parents may place their toddler on his or her tummy and set a sensory ball just out of the baby’s reach. They can tap the ball and encourage the baby to reach for it or move toward it. As baby starts to roll or crawl, parents should give praise and are encouraged to crawl with their babies as a fun game of tag. Make sure to give lots of hugs and kisses when parents catch their babies.

Grabbing those chain links, parents can show baby how to put them inside a sock and take them out, using the words “in” and “out.” The sock also makes a great puppet, using a fabric marker to draw and talking about the eyes, nose and mouth. Parents may also use the puppet to talk or sing to the baby.

Washcloths are also common household items that can be used to stimulate sensory responses. Parents can try to gently rub the washcloth over the baby’s skin and talk about how it feels, like “soft,” “rough” or “slippery.” Peek-a-boo is another fun game with a washcloth, letting baby pull the washcloth off of a parent’s face. Then switch and put the washcloth on the baby’s face and let baby pull it off.

These tips and other ideas are available online at


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