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Laughter and smiles are universal signs of happiness, but did you know that laughter is also a natural stress reliever?

Children experience all sorts of emotions each day, from excitement and joy to frustration and sadness. They might find themselves unable to process their feelings.

Laughter prompts the brain to release endorphins, those feel-good chemicals. This simple act can help children diffuse tension or stress and feel more positive and cheerful. Not only is laughter relaxing and contagious, but it also encourages bonding with those around you.

Especially at this time of year, if you or your child are feeling out of sorts and need a quick pick-me-up, remember that laughter is the best medicine!

A majority of parents surveyed by Zero to Three believe 2-year-olds can control their emotions and impulses, as well as learn to share. But experts say these skills are not fully developed until a few years later, around age 4.

That is worth keeping in mind during the upcoming holidays. The excitement of presents and family get-togethers, along with decorations, songs and more free time, can be a recipe for a child meltdown at any age. A toddler needs special attention to conquer these feelings.

Acknowledging a child’s feelings by talking to them is a good start. Distractions, smiles and hugs have magical powers on a child’s emotions. Having realistic expectations of your child’s behavior will help everyone enjoy this special time.

One of the most important things adults can do in children's lives is talk and read to them.

The New York Times reported that babies who are exposed to talking early on hear more words, enabling them to learn faster. Similarly, studies show that early reading with children helps them learn to speak, interact, bond with parents, as well as read early themselves.

But what do you do when life gets busy, and you don't have an extra 20 minutes to sit and read? Don't let that stop you from connecting with your child!

Sing a song, talk to them about what you're doing, where you're going if you're running errands, what you're buying if you're at the grocery store. Point out items and describe them. Exposing your child to the soothing quality of your voice, and feeding their vocabulary is a win-win situation!

The part of the brain responsible for working memory is also responsible for maintaining focus and concentration, as well as developing reading skills. With poor working memory, a child's academic future can have stumbling blocks.

Help your children strengthen their working memory. Play cards, encourage active reading, play games that use visual memory, sing songs, and talk often to your child, even if it's just to share what you are seeing or doing.

Remember that being in your children's earliest memories is a gift that will last their lifetime. Enjoy these moments!

Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) is a neurological disorder that includes problems communicating and interacting with others, unusual patterns of behavior and intellectual disability.

One in 68 children are diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) today. It's not exactly known why the number of children diagnosed is increasing, but more awareness and better diagnosis, as well as changes to the condition's diagnostic criteria may be contributing to the increase.

Early detection and diagnosis can be helpful for all involved, especially parents and caregivers who can feel frustration or helplessness when not being able to connect with their child. For questions or concerns about your child’s development, make a free call to Help Me Grow Florida by simply dialing 2-1-1.

Research tells us how play is vital to children's brain development, enabling them to learn by tapping into their natural curiosity and creativity. Playing also enhances children’s adjustment, language and social and emotional stability by 33 to 67%.

After preschool, though, there is an ongoing debate over academics vs. play in elementary schools, especially in cutting back on recess for more test-prep time. Florida changed its approach last spring. Pushed by a group of vocal and visible mothers, legislators put back a recess period into the school day.

Let's remember to get back to basics, and go outside for some sun, fresh air and play! Encouraging play helps develop pathways to the brain and learning.

Why should parents talk to babies as often as possible? In the first three years, when 85 percent of brain growth occurs, “parent talk” is the best way to feed a child’s growing mind.

Those words heard by babies and toddlers can have a big impact on them years later on in school. In the mid-1990’s, University of Kansas psychologists Betty Hart and Todd Risley conducted a landmark study on child language development that found the more parents talked to their children from birth to age 3, the faster their vocabularies grew and the higher their IQ test scores were.

Those findings are consistent with recent developments in Florida, where an increasing majority of third- and fourth-graders achieved passing scores or higher on English language arts tests in the last three years, according to the Department of Education.

If you have questions about child development concerns such as this, call Help Me Grow, a free parent resource, at 2-1-1 or visit its website.

Access to books is considered the single biggest barrier to literacy gains for young children. That means a shortage of age-appropriate materials in poor neighborhoods can affect a child’s development.

Children can learn up to 12,000 new words each year by reading. But when the availability of books is limited, so too is the acquisition of language, vocabulary and knowledge.

This type of deficiency during the early years could be a factor in poor test scores later. This year, 41 percent of Florida third-graders scored below proficiency levels in reading.

If you’d like to make a difference in the lives of early readers, become a ReadingPal! You’ll have the opportunity to read to two youngsters from pre-kindergarten to third grade, bringing a new book and a friendly face into their world each week.

Babies are fascinating little responders. Not only do newborns react to the sounds of music, but they also can recognize their mother’s voice in utero, and it has a calming effect on them. Mom's voice has been shown to help increase infants' heart and lung stability, growth and improve sleep.

These influences are evident in a number of neonatal studies that show preemies thrive when a mother's voice is used to reinforce good eating, as many premature infants experience feeding problems. In 2015, there were 22,388 preemies born in Florida; almost one in 10 births was premature (9.9%).

Singing, talking and reading to babies has proven to make a difference in their development.

If you have any questions about your child's health or development, call Help Me Grow, a free parent resource, at 2-1-1 or visit its website at helpmegrowfl.org.

Sharing stories and songs are natural precursors to early literacy. These interactions at home and school serve as building blocks toward language proficiency, and ultimately, reading at grade level. By the time children reach the third grade, their reading ability can indicate their future success in school and beyond.

Unfortunately, 61% of Florida's fourth graders are not proficient in reading.

With early intervention, we can ensure that more children have the proper reading skills to succeed in school, careers and life.

If you'd like to be part of the solution, become a ReadingPals volunteer!

The first five years of life are crucial for a child’s ability to eventually learn to read and write. Early on, the relationship children build with books determines their capacity to develop early language, literacy and a love for reading.

As a child’s brain is developing, the best way to increase their vocabulary, fluency and comprehension is by reading to them early and often – ultimately, connecting reading with positive, stimulating experiences.

Want to help a child build a strong reading foundation? Become a ReadingPals volunteer! By doing so, you will help us ensure that more children in Florida are reading at grade level by the end of third grade.

Did you know that brain plasticity (the ability to learn and modify behavior) is strongest during the early years?

Young children have twice as many synapses connecting nerve cells as adults, meaning they learn twice as fast! That’s why they say the best time to learn a new language is when you’re young.

Proper brain stimulation during the early years gives children the capacity to learn and function at a high level for the rest of their lives.

To keep your own brain stimulated, follow us on Twitter!

During their first few years, children can begin to develop executive function and self-regulation skills.

These mental processes enable them to remember information, pay attention and control impulses. These skills are vital for learning and development.

Children aren’t born with these skills; they are born with the potential to develop them. When children master these skills, they are better equipped to have stronger social and academic results.

Why do young children learn so quickly?

Their brains develop primarily during the first five years of life, especially in the first three for cognitive, linguistic, emotional and motor skills.

By the time they reach age 2, toddlers will have the most synapses (nerve-cell connections) they will ever have throughout their lifetime – more than 1,000 trillion! Every time they encounter new experiences, new neural connections are being made.

Being healthy, living in a safe environment and forming close relationships with their caregivers are essential factors that nurture their rapid developing brains. To help ensure all children can reach their full potential, please click here to join The Children's Movement in 2017 and find out how you can get involved in our work. Also, follow us on Twitter.

Did you know that going to the doctor when healthy is just as important as when you are sick?

This is especially true for babies. “Well visits” enable the pediatrician to do thorough check-ups to ensure babies are developing and growing properly. The first year is vital to make sure they are on the right track and to catch any potential problems early on.

Unfortunately, more than 283,000 children in Florida are uninsured, making access to a pediatrician difficult. The Children’s Movement needs your support in 2017 to ensure that all of Florida’s eligible children can enroll in the state’s KidCare health insurance program. See how you can help through our grassroots programs.

Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) is a mental condition that often begins in childhood and can continue into adulthood.

The most common symptoms typically first appear between the ages of 3 and 6, and include difficulty concentrating, paying attention and impulsivity. The behavioral disorder often contributes to feelings of low self-esteem and anxiety.

One in five American children who have been diagnosed with ADHD are not being treated for their disorder. Children who do not receive proper treatment have more difficulty succeeding in life, which is why The Children’s Movement of Florida is committed to expanding special needs services, such as Early Steps and Child Find, that help screen and treat all children.

Is TV suitable for young children?

While some educational shows can benefit older children, watching TV can actually be detrimental for younger children.

Young children who watch TV are more likely to have shorter attention spans, difficulty concentrating and are less able to recognize letters and numbers by the time they go to school.

Watching TV also takes time away from important activities such as family bonding, interactive education and playing, which all help pre-school children grow emotionally, intellectually and socially.

The Children’s Movement of Florida understands the importance of young children interacting with a caring adult who can instill a love for reading. That is why we encourage you to become a ReadingPals volunteer!

Did you know that most 1-year-olds use both hands equally well?

One-year-old children have not yet established key connections in their brains related to certain speech and motor skills. In the first few years of their life, 700 new neural connections are formed every second.

As these connections solidify, 2- and 3-year-old toddlers usually start to show a preference for the right or left hand, and their physical and cognitive abilities continue to evolve at an astonishing rate.

The first few years set the foundation for children’s lives. That is why The Children’s Movement supports expanding Help Me Grow, a child development resource for parents, in its 2017 legislative agenda.

How important is physical bonding with your baby?

Babies immediately form a bond with their mothers, as research shows they can recognize their mother's voice and scent within a few days of being born.

These physical and emotional connections encourage babies' behavioral, emotional and social growth. That is why The Children's Movement has put parent skill-building - and expanding the 24-hour parent resource, Help Me Grow - at the center of its 2017 legislative agenda.

To find out more about Help Me Grow and ways to promote healthy development with your child, please visit HelpMeGrowFL.org.

Do you ever wonder if your children will run out of questions to ask you?

Age and gender play a significant role in the number of questions children ask. For example, research shows that 4-year-old girls are the most curious, asking an unbelievable 390 questions per day (averaging a question every one minute and 56 seconds!).

Children tend to ask more questions during their first few years than any other period in their lives. During this period of rapid brain growth, children’s curiosity helps them develop their critical thinking, vocabulary and communication skills.

By age 2, children have developed a good understanding of language and can recognize at least 200 to 300 words. They are able to comprehend and respond to who, where and what questions.

By age 3, their vocabulary improves considerably, expanding up to as many as 900 words. As they continue to grow, they will ask many questions in order to make better sense of the world around them.

The early years are critical (and the windows of opportunities close quickly). Together, let's continue to educate our elected officials and decision-makers on the importance of early childhood investment.

Did you know that there is a scientific correlation between play and happiness?

Young children use play, fun and laughter to explore the world around them, and all of that is essential for early brain development.

Healthy doses of free, unstructured play creates changes in the neuron connections in the prefrontal cortex, ultimately improving a child’s ability to manage emotions, solve problems, enhance creativity and improve social interactions.

Giving children opportunities to “work” through joyful play will truly benefit them in the long run.