Parenting -- Is Your Toddler Getting Enough Stimulation?

NEW YORK - Marla Sherman of Manhattan is the mother of Sophia, 15 months.

"I worry whether she getting stimulated enough as far as organized activities," Sherman says. "Is she going to fall behind developmentally? Is she not going to be where everybody else is?"

Sophia is at home with a full-time caregiver while Sherman works. But whether your child is in day care, with a nanny or at home with you, the "stimulation" watchword looms large. Is your toddler learning the words, movements and social skills she'll need soon enough? How can you tell?

"The biggest thing at the toddler stage is it's important for them to play with other children," says Dr. Paula Prezioso of Pediatric Associates. That means that if your child doesn't have siblings, you should be sure he's getting plenty of time on a busy playground. If he's in day care, you should be sure he's not plopped in front of the TV.

You should also make unannounced visits to the day-care center to make sure its employees are encouraging the kids to solve problems themselves, rather than just butting in, says Susan Barron, coordinator of pediatric neuropsychiatry at Long Island Jewish Medical Center.

"If Billie and Tillie get into a fight, make sure (the caregivers) encourage them to work it out rather than just saying, `Stop.' " That will develop kids' social skills.

As far as developing his physical skills, your child needs to run, jump, dance and climb - but not necessarily in the context of an organized class, like Gymboree.

"I think parents are swept up in their anxiety that they're not going to do what's right. The next thing they're going to do is give them golf lessons," jokes psychiatrist Harvey Roy Greenberg.

"I think parents should stop running around so much and spend more time with each other," he says. "The kid will turn out all right."

The exception to this easygoing approach is when the child is in a severely deprived environment. That means a home where no one is paying him any attention, no books are on the shelves, the TV is blaring and no one's offering to play a game.

In that situation, says Dr. Pamela Papola, director of the Child Development Center at Nassau County Medical Center, a Head Start program can do a world of good.

"A child who has been understimulated in a (barren) environment will have difficulties in kindergarten. Long-term data shows that Head Start doesn't improve IQ, but it does help in terms of higher-paying jobs, less substance abuse and incarceration."

It is pretty easy to determine whether your child is getting enough stimulation. If he seems listless and bored, it's probably time for pre-kindergarten or day care. If he seems exhausted, maybe it's time to cut out the kiddie karate class.

"Up until age 3, my son was just playing with toys and watching Barney," says Eliva Farrell of Yonkers, a phone service manager and mother of 4-year-old A'Jahn. "The nanny had a group of children, but they never did anything. They'd sit on the stoop."

She could tell her child was growing listless, so she enrolled him in a preschool. A year later, he is thriving. "If I'd known, I would've put him into school a lot sooner," she says now.

So take stock of your child's needs. It might just be a play date, or a structured class. Don't fret. Shower your child with love, and he'll never fall very far behind.