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Most of the children we work with at BrainWare Learning Company are at least 6 years old, but we get a lot of questions about how to support children in developing cognitive skills in the early years.  Here are some basic principles and resources that parents find helpful to support the development of the amazing brains of young children.

Nutrition

Brain development is most sensitive to nutrition between mid-gestation and two years of age. Children who are malnourished (deprived of adequate calories and protein) do not adequately grow, either physically or mentally.

Because of the rapid pace of myelination (the fatty substance that helps neurons communicate more efficiently in the brain) in early life, children need a high level of fat in their diet (about 50 % of their total calories) until about 2 years of age.

After 2 years of age, children should begin transitioning to a more heart-healthy level of dietary fat…about 30% of total calories.

Sleep

Because much consolidation of learning occurs during sleep, it is critical that toddlers get sufficient sleep….between 10 and 13 hours.

A study found that children with irregular bedtimes up to the age of three were the most negatively affected when it came to reading, math skills and spatial awareness.

Another study found that children sleeping less than 10 hours a night before the age of three were more likely to exhibit language and reading problems as well as ADHD.

Touch

Early interactions shape the wiring in the brain and establish patterns for how the child will develop relationships as he or she grows older.

Children need parents and caregivers to be emotionally and physically available to children. They need to gently guide the child’s behavior, and provide consistent and positive tactile interactions like cuddling, smiling, and kissing.

Play

Play is essential to children’s development.  When children play, they develop a wide variety of skills, including gross motor skills (big movements of the arms, legs, and trunk), fine motor skills (small movements of the hands, fingers, mouth, and tongue), hand-eye coordination, visual tracking (following objects with both eyes), and cognitive skills like creative thinking, reasoning, problem solving, and listening.

Preschool is not a time for academics!! In Finland which ranks high in academic achievement, there is not formal reading instruction before the age of 7.

Music and Singing

Singing and listening to a variety of music helps build music-related pathways in the brain. Music can have a positive effect on a child’s mood. While listening to music has not been shown to increase intelligence, making music and/or learning to play an instrument does have a relationship with improved cognitive functioning.

Sing to children. It doesn’t matter how well you sing! Hearing your voice helps children  begin to learn language. Children love the patterns and rhythms of songs – and are soothed by the sound of an adult’s voice.

Music and language are intertwined. Nursery rhymes are the child’s first phonics lessons. (which words sound alike and which ones do not). Use simple rhythms using musical instruments such as rhythm sticks, bells, triangles, maracas, etc. The best songs are the ones you make up on your own or that you and your child make up together when they are old enough.

Reading to Children

Reading to children is one of the most important jobs in which parents and teachers engage!  Even before they begin to read, children are learning “bookness” (which is right side up, how to turn pages, that we read words, not pictures, etc.).

Children like to listen to the same books over and over. It helps to reinforce all the language skills that they are learning, and helps develop the skill of prediction, which is an essential part of reading. When a child knows a book really well, they may even be able to “read” it to you, giving them a sense of independent mastery.

Drawing

Coloring is an example of a child’s development of fine motor skills. Fine motor skills are small movements that use the hands, fingers, toes, wrists, and other small muscles.

Encourage children to draw and paint by pulling out big sheets of paper, crayons, washable pens, finger paints, or paint brushes. You can also use chunky sidewalk chalk outdoors or soap crayons in the tub.

Talking

A child’s most intensive period for absorbing speech and language skills is during his or her first three years of life. These skills develop best in a world that is rich with sounds, sights, and consistent exposure to speech.  This means speech that is interactive, not speech heard on a radio, a television or a computer.

Talk to children. Research shows the more adults talk with children, the larger vocabularies those children develop. So, use everyday moments to talk to children and teach them about the world around them.

Learning a second language after age 10 to 12 is not only more difficult, it is highly unlikely that it will be spoken without an accent. If your child is lucky enough to be exposed to two languages, that is associated with a cognitive benefit.

Media & Screen Time

The American Academy of Pediatrics calls for no screen time at all for children until 18 to 24 months, except for video chatting, and says kids ages 2 to 5 should get an hour or less of screen time per day.  Screen time should also be avoided for the hour before bedtime.

Movement

Research shows that exercise increases oxygen to the brain. It also releases a growth hormone called BDNF.  BDNF has been called Miracle Gro for the brain!

Include “brain breaks” throughout the day. Use Jumping Jacks, walks outdoors, and singing songs that include moving such as “Head and Shoulders, Knees and Toes” and “The Hokey Pokey.”

Dance has been show to have positive effects on cognitive development.

Attention and Focus

Here are some other activities that you may not have thought about as development cognitive skills, so here are some that do that and they’re fun (at almost any age)!  Note that some of the ideas here involve skills that toddlers don’t have yet.  Wait til they’re ready!

Scavenger Hunts

The classic scavenger hunt is a fun way to inspire children to notice their surroundings and pay closer attention to details.

  • Begin by choosing a theme that will motivate your child.
  • Create a checklist of interesting objects to search for. You can choose everyday objects that
    children might not notice around them on a daily basis, or place objects in hidden locations
    specifically for the game. Themes can include searching for specific shapes, specific sized
    objects or objects of a specific color.
  • There are list ideas on the Internet (e.g., https://www.pinterest.com/patkacz45/scavengerhunt-list/). http://ukloo.com/ is another option.
  • Scavenger hunts can be very social when played in teams but can be played with just one
    child.
  • Scavenger hunts can also be a great indoor activity on a rainy day.
  • When playing outside, children will begin to see their surroundings in a way they never did
    before by studying fences, sidewalks, cars and street signs

Just Listen

Just listen is an enjoyable activity that exercises attention and listening skills.

  • Go outside with your child, find a comfortable spot to sit or lay down and close your eyes. Listen to environmental sounds around you.
  • Together, pinpoint very specific sounds (e.g., listening for different bird sounds). To allow for more focus on the sounds, bring a  clipboard for your child to write down or draw a picture of what he/she hears and then talk about the sounds afterwards.

Playing Catch and Jumping Rope

Playing catch and jumping rope improve visual motor coordination, listening skills and attention.

  • When children play catch or any games involving balls they are strengthening muscle coordination, planning and balance. Start with larger balls and slower speed. Gradually decrease the size of the ball and increase speed to improve skills.
  • Jumping rope integrates rhythm and listening skills. For reluctant speakers, repeating the jump rope chants can give good practice in speaking loudly, clearly, and rhythmically. Some popular jump rope chants can be found at
    https://www.care.com/c/stories/3968/11-catchy-jump-rope-rhymes/.
  • Combine catch or jump rope with facts, such as counting (by ones, twos, threes etc.), counting backwards, or reciting the alphabet backwards.

Stop and Go Games

Physical activities/games that require focus and quick responses help children practice attention and
inhibition.

  • Statues. One person is the museum guard and the others are the exhibits. Pick a fun theme like Zombies or dinosaurs. When the museum guard turns his/her back, the exhibits can move around. When they turn back, the exhibits have to freeze in whatever pose they were in.
  • Freeze Dance. Like Statues, but players must freeze when the music stops.
  • Musical chairs.
  • Red Light, Green Light
  • Duck, Duck, Goose.
  • Mother May I?
  • What Time Is It, Mr. Fox? https://www.fatherly.com/play/mr-fox-high-thrills-chase-bedtime/ (although
    not necessarily at bedtime).
  • Simon Says is another great game for attention, inhibition, and cognitive flexibility, as the child has to track which rule to apply and switch actions, as appropriate.

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