Genes and environment each contribute 50% to a child’s intellectual development. This gives parents some room to step in and boost their child’s intelligence! When is the best time to start cultivating your child’s intelligence? Early on is optimal, when the brain is malleable and while you still exert the deciding influence over your child’s environment. Curiosity, persistence, motivation, and attention all can be taught early on. Evolution seems to have already favored these early years – your child is more receptive to your teaching due to his/her high dependence on you for their physical and emotional needs. Researchers have managed to identify several specific aspects of children’s environment that will influence intellectual development. Here are some steps parents can take to improve their child’s brain development and cognitive potential!
1. Prenatal influences: Of all environmental influences on a child’s intelligence, prenatal experience is perhaps the most potent. A mother’s health, nutrition, environmental exposure, and emotional well-being all influence the development of a fetal brain. High levels of stress hormones negatively interfere with optimal brain development by acting directly and indirectly on both the developing neurons and altering the course of pregnancy. If you are pregnant or know someone who is pregnant, suggest a simpler schedule, regular exercise, and the use of relaxation or other methods to maintain stress levels down.
2. Nutrition: Between 4 months of gestation and 2 years, a baby’s brain has a heightened sensitivity to the quantity and the quality of nutrients consumed. Babies who are malnourished during this particular period show IQ and sensory motor deficits, as well as slower language development. This happens because their brains are smaller with fewer neurons and synapses, fewer dendrites and less myelin than babies who are properly nourished. After birth, breastmilk is the single most important nutritional choice that can serve to increase a child’s IQ. Research has proven that children reared on breast milk score around 8 points higher on IQ tests at 8 years of age than those reared on formula, after correcting other variables such as socioeconomic differences.
3. Activities and physical environment: Brain development requires proper stimulation; smarter children come from homes that provide a greater opportunity to explore and play. A child’s brain also needs variety in daily experiences. The key to effectively stimulating a child is to stay one step ahead of his/her habituation, which is incredibly potent. So, rotate different play materials every week or so. With just a little creativity, parents can find plenty of ways to stimulate their children without having to constantly buy new toys. Learning happens when children create their own play worlds. “Play is the major vehicle for children to learn,” Shonkoff (Harvard Professor of Child Health and Development) mentions. Children need to go outside and be exposed to different environments; see other children and interact with other adults. However, there is a limit as to how much stimulation a child should have. Too many toys and activities can create confusion and cause the opposite effect, hampering the ability of a child to focus.
4. Music: One of the most astounding findings about early enrichment is the effect of music. Although music has no spatial component, its pitch is converted into a spatial map by the inner ear and thus our brains experience music as simultaneous patterns in both space and time. A great way to stimulate spatial intelligence is through piano training. The reason that piano playing gives an extra boost to a child’s musical experience is due to the simultaneous use of finger movements, location, pitch, timing, and aesthetic feedback – all ideal for right hemisphere development. It is known that the vast majority of musicians with perfect pitch began their training at an early age (before seven). A young brain is ready for this kind of spatial-temporal training!
5. Parent/caregiver style: Activities and environment are both critical in the equation for early enrichment but the quality of the interactions between the child and the caregiver are of paramount importance. We teach our children directly when we teach them how something works or when we reinforce behavior and curiosity through positive feedback. However, we also teach indirectly through the example we set for them every day. Children learn on a daily basis from the simplest interactions; they learn about feelings, kindness, how to treat other people, solve problems, observe details and remember events. Intellectual success goes beyond raw intelligence. Smart children ask questions, grow curious about the world around them, are persistent in solving problems and finding answers. All these “smart” qualities are influenced by a child’s parents. Psychologists have unraveled key features that relate to a child’s intellectual success such as nurturing, responsiveness, and involvement. Nurturing both physically and emotionally – babies thrive on physical contact and those who experience affection and positive feedback tend towards better cognitive outcomes. For infants, responsive caregiving means not only responding to essential physical needs but also engaging in serve and return interactions. Babies babble and expect you to reply and engage in a conversation. Verbal responsiveness enhances language development and also serves in shaping a child’s emotional reaction and self-awareness. Involved parenting involves direct one – on – one interactions where you can focus your attention on your child. Studies have found a relationship between a child’s IQ and the amount of quality time spent in shared activities with their parents.
Parents who are able to cultivate strong relationships with their children are ultimately helping shape more productive adults. “[parental] love is an important part of the economy,” says economist James Heckman.
Read more about how early experiences drive development!
What’s Going on in There? How the Brain and Mind Develop in the First Five Year of Life – Life Elliot, Ph.D