Little Leaps Offers Parental Tips


Editor’s Note: This is the second 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.

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 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 parents can learn more about their child’s development as they play.

13 to 18 Months

Items in the “brain bags” for toddlers 13 to 18 months included a 100 first words book, toy animal and tissue paper, beach ball, measuring cups, pullback car and stacking or nesting cups, many of which are easily accessible in the home.

Holding a toddler in their lap, parents are encouraged to look at the first words book together as they name the animals or objects on the page. Parents may ask toddlers to find the objects they name on each page and give praise for correct answers and point to objects the child didn’t find.

For some sensory fun, wrap an animal in tissue paper and let the toddler find it. Then have the toddler wrap the paper around the animal. Another fun activity is to get two cups or containers that look the same. Parents can hide the animal under one cup while the toddler watches. When the toddler finds the animal, have he or she hide it under a cup for the parents to find. Animals also make great bathtub toys, and parents are encouraged to make the animal “talk” to the child during the bath.

Toddlers love to play with balls, and a beach ball is a great choice for youngsters. Parents can work with toddlers to roll, throw or kick the ball. Another great idea is to save empty plastic bottles or boxes and use them as bowling pins. After the toddler rolls the ball to knock them over, have him or her help set them up again. Other activities with a beach ball is to gently throw it and have the child try to catch it or sit on the floor and roll the ball back and forth.

Grab some measuring cups from the pantry and encourage the toddler to pick them up. The baby will enjoy banging the cups together or hitting them on another surface. Parents can show the baby how the cups fit inside each other using words like “in” and “out.”

Pullback cars are a great tool for brain development. Parents can hold their child’s hand and gently show how to pull back the car or truck and let it go. As it takes off, cheer with the child and get set up to do it again. For playing on the floor, parents can encourage their child to chase it and pull it back again or sit opposite from the child and have he or she try to send it back to the parents.

Nesting cups can be placed on a sofa or a low, sturdy table. Toddlers can stand up to play, and parents should teach them how to place the cups inside each other and stack them to make a tower. As the child practices both tasks, parents can ask them to help pick up the cups and put them back together. Another fun activity is to put the cups in a paper bag and let the toddler dump them out. Singing a fun “clean up” song is a great way to get children to help pick up the toys.

19 to 24 Months

Common items in the “brain bags” for 19 to 24-month-old children include a colander, crayon and egg carton, first book of coloring, “Head, Shoulders, Knees and Toes” song, ping pong ball and container and a shovel set.

A kitchen colander is a fun toy for the bathtub or sandbox, and parents can add ping pong balls or rocks. Parents can talk to the toddler about the items in the colander and which ones will flow through the holes. The toddler can also use the colander as a basket to carry toys.

Coloring is an age-appropriate activity for brain development at this stage. One way to stimulate brain activity is to put a crayon in an egg carton. The toddler can pick it up or dump it out of the carton, and parents can move the crayon from one compartment to the next. With a piece of paper, parents can encourage their toddler to scribble a picture and talk about the color he or she is using, as well as other things in the room that are the same color.

With a coloring book, parents can join their toddler in a coloring session. As they work together, parents can talk about what they see their child doing, like what colors they are using or what animals or objects they are coloring. Parents can also ask questions about the coloring page and allow time for the toddler to answer. As a reward, they can hang the picture up for display in the house.

Another activity to help toddlers learn is the song “Head, Shoulders, Knees and Toes.” As parents sing with their child, they can name the body parts and have toddlers point to them. Parents are also encouraged to teach toddlers the actions that go with the song and try their hand at other songs and rhymes.

Grab a ping pong ball and a laundry basket and have the toddler try to throw the ball into the basket. As a tip, put a towel in the bottom to keep the ball from bouncing out. Toddlers can take the ball out of the container and put it back in many times. Ping pong balls are also great for bath time. Parents can show toddlers how the ball pops back up when it’s held underneath the water.

Small gardening tools are fun to use in the yard or the sandbox. Parents can show toddlers how each tool makes a different mark. They can also use a bucket to collect leaves or flowers while outside. Indoors, toddlers can rake or scoop up paper cups, blocks or other toys. Toddlers will also enjoy using these tools in the bathtub.

These tips and other ideas are available online at


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