Little Leaps Offers Parental Tips


Editor’s Note: This is the third 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.

In a collaboration with Hillsboro Area Hospital and the Southern Illinois University School of Medicine’s Department of Population Science and Policy, the Hillsboro Community Child Development Center embarked on a journey to help families in rural areas enhance child development.

“HCCDC is proud of the collaborative work that was done to successfully complete this research project,” said Director Sheri Reynolds. “The support from Hillsboro Hospital, the team work from HCCDC teachers and the team sent to us by SIU was the result of the great force behind this project.”

The project used “brain bags” with common age-appropriate items to stimulate the brain at a young age with the hope of keeping children from falling behind.

“The teachers brought their experiences in the classroom while the staff at SIU gave expert advice and protocol,” Reynolds said. “Together with our children and parents we were able to put together some of the best ways for young children to learn. A way for them to learn from their first and best teacher, you as their parent. Children learn by the parents model. But if early childhood is not a field they are familiar with they become lost.”

There are things that children need to learn that are not modeled in daily activity. The activities Little Leaps put together stimulate different parts of the brain and keeps the child’s brain active in all areas. 

“Even if parents and teachers do activities, are always talking and communicating, and are counting to ten doing everything they think they should do, it is still interesting to look at the brain model and see that what you are doing stimulates the different parts of the brain,” Reynolds said. “It seems to validate that a simple act like making the sound of a cow, can make a difference in the young child’s whole educational experience.”

The following are ideas for children ages two to three. 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.

Two to Two and a Half

Items in the “brain bags” for toddlers ages two to two and a half years old included cookie cutters and play dough, jumbo chalk and stencils, kitchen utensils, sing along board book and a spray bottle.

Toddlers love play dough, and parents can show them how to flatten it out and cut out animal shapes using cookie cutters. To stimulate brain development, ask the child to name the animal, make its sound and talk about where it lives. Make sure to allow the child time to enjoy the play dough during free play too.

A great outdoor activity is allowing toddlers to draw pictures with jumbo chalk and have them describe what they have drawn. If outdoors isn’t an option, have toddlers draw on newspaper or brown grocery sacks. In addition, parents can show toddlers how to use stencils. They can also trace around the child and have the child trace around the parent to talk about size differences.

Helping to make dinner is another great way to stimulate brain development. Parents can give toddlers kitchen utensils and a plastic bowl and show them how to stir. They can ask questions about what the child is making, and then pretend to taste what the child has made.

Toddlers love when parents are silly and sing along books are a fun way to do just that. Parents can read the book aloud to their child, following the words with their finger as they read. Help the child learn by describing the pictures and making the signs shown in the books. Then help the child to make those same signs. Toddlers will love for parents to sing the song with them and then get up and dance, using signs from the song.

Another fun outdoor activity is giving a toddler a spray bottle of water to practice spraying. Outside, parents can play a game with toddlers asking them to find and spray things like trees or vehicles. They can also try to spray a design on the sidewalk. Inside, they can spray a thick piece of paper or play with the bottle in the bathtub.

Two and a Half to Three

Common items in the “brain bags” for two and a half to three-year-old children include scarves, opposites book, paint brush and paper and a simple puzzle.

Dancing with scarves is a fun way for toddlers to stimulate brain development. After letting the toddler pick a scarf, parents can play some music and encourage their child to dance along. Parents can model a slow dance to calm music and a crazy dance to fast music. They can also let the child take the lead in dancing and talk about different dancing moves.

Reading is a very important tip to stimulate brain development in children of all ages. For toddlers, opposite books are a fun way to learn. As they read, parents can ask the toddler to point to the pictures as the parent names them and talk about how opposites are different in the home and neighborhood. As the child starts to remember this story, parents can pause while reading it, asking them to fill in the next word.

Get artsy with a paint brush and a small cup of water. As the toddler begins to paint, parents can talk to them about their project. Parents may also add their own artwork to the painting, and talk about taking turns with the paint brush.

Puzzles are another fun way to stimulate a toddler’s brain. With a simple puzzle, parents can help show their toddler how the pieces fit together. When complete, they can talk with their child about the picture on the puzzle and help to count the pieces. Sorting pieces by color is another  fun activity. As another fun idea, parents can make their own simple puzzles by cutting up pictures into three or four pieces and helping the child fit them together. 

These tips and other ideas are available online at

One of the goals of this project was to put these ideas and knowledge out to teachers and parents everywhere,” Reynolds said. “We are all so proud to reach this goal. Please take a look at the website, nothing seems too simple for the young child, they really are not born with the knowledge, they just pick it up super quick in the first five years of their little lives. “


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