Category Archives: Cognitive

Cognitive flexibility starts in early childhood!

According to a team of researchers from the University of Sheffield, cognitive flexibility is the ability we have to take into account new information that may arise in any give situation, and that may result in modifying a behavior that was usually done based on an initial and implicit rule. This important cognitive capacity is usually developed during the preschool years and marks a crucial moment in early cognitive development. The capacity to adapt and respond to new challenges and solve problems is essential to every aspect of human life.

To illustrate what this means, in 2006, University of Toronto’s professor of psychology Philip David Zelazo did an experiment in which he gave a group of 3 and 4-year-olds two sorting tasks. The first one was to sort colored shapes by one rule (either by their color or their shape) while the second task was to sort these same figures by another rule (color or shape, depending on which rule each kid had been given for the first task). He found out that both the 3-year-olds and the 4-year-olds were able to sort the shapes by a single rule, but after switching the rules to sort the shapes by another characteristic, only the 4-years-old were able to reliably take the second rule into consideration and sort the shapes according to the new information.

What developmental psychologists have found about the development of cognitive flexibility is that it develops between 3 and 4 years of age, and its emergence involves a wide set of cognitive skills developed around that age. According to a 2015 paper published in Journal of Child Development by developmental psychologist Emma Blakey and her team from the University of Sheffield the attention control, memory, impulse control and abstract and conceptual thinking are some of the capacities that allow preschool children to develop cognitive flexibility.

How to boost your 3-year-old’s memory

Although you have already seen a tremendous progress in your daughter’s capacity to recall events from the past, your little one’s brain is still very young. Toddlers can store information and memories, but because their brain, specially the hippocampus and cortex, is still developing, they have a much harder time than adults retrieving memories. This means that, although your 3-year-old might not be able to recall many aspects of daily life, memories are never truly lost. Psychologist Dima Amso from Brown University assets that every memory is essentially a unit of experience and even if specific memories are forgotten, the whole of our memory, even from a very early age, is the basis of every person’s identity.

As time passes and your little girl continues growing, her ability to process information, discriminate sensory information, understand concepts of time and use language to recall past experiences will grow as well, and all this will contribute to her memory skills.

Like with many other skills, there are many activities you can do to help and encourage your daughter’s memory development. Here are some ideas:
• Recall the day. Having the family share the events of their days during a mealtime or before bed is a good habit that can foster both linguistic and cognitive development by encouraging conversational skills.
• Two heads remember better than one. After an activity, a visit to a relative’s house, a playdate or an outing, sit down with your little one and recall the things that you did and saw. Prompt your kid with fun questions.
• Play memory games, like remembering cards with pictures.

Just remember never to scold or show frustration about your little one’s developing memory, its normal at this age for kids to forget things.

Imaginary friends

You might be wondering why your child suddenly has an imaginary friend or why this fantastical company is still around now that your kid is old enough to start going on playdates. Why is she playing with an imaginary friend if there are so many real-life positive socializing opportunities daily?

First of all, having an imaginary friend is completely normal. In an article published in 2008 by the American Journal of Play, psychologists reviewed research interviews with children, from toddlers to second graders, and found that the creation of an imaginary friend is a healthy and common type of pretend play, in which children invent stories and characteristics about their imaginary pals that they are happy to share. Jacqueline Woolley of the University of Texas at Austin stated in her 1997 publication in the journal Child Development that, even though kids can get very involved in their play, research has found that having an imaginary companion doesn’t hinder nor compromises a developing child’s capacity to distinguish pretend from real. After all, being a young child is difficult and what little girl would turn down an opportunity to be accompanied by someone completely under her will, someone that is not a rival competing for her toys, attention of parents, food, and that is completely non-threatening and controllable?

Most of imaginary play-pals appear when a child is between 2 and 3 years old. Depending on the child, an imaginary friend might be ever-present around your kid or an occasional house-guest. Imaginary friends come in all shapes and sizes: from a fairy-godmother to a giant red dog. They can be animal, adult, peer or a fantastical creature –imagination is the limit!

Children have imaginary friends for all sorts of reasons. One kid might use one to encounter his developing personality, as a safe way to explore emotions or as an outlet to express complicated feelings or words, while other kid might have one that acts as an alter-ego to test parents and limits, and place blame for misconducts. It might be that a child creates a pal that’s a perfect peer to keep him company or give extra moral support.

Marjorie Taylor is a leading psychology researcher of the Imagination Lab at the University of Oregon, and, since the 80s, she has been exploring the relationship between imaginary friends and children’s cognitive and socio-emotional development. According to her book Imaginary companions and the children who create them, up to two thirds of children will have an imaginary friend between the ages of 3 and 8. Her research team has found only small statistically significant differences between kids with and without imaginary friends, but these differences are actually positive. Children with imaginary companions appear to be good at understanding the perspective of others, have a slightly larger vocabulary and seem to be less shy.

If you understand the importance of your child’s imaginary companion, but could use a few tips on how to react around it, here are some of the recommendations developmental psychologist Tracy Gleason, from Wellesley College, gives to parents:
• Don’t make fun of having an imaginary friend and avoid attracting negative attention to it.
• If your kid likes to report to you on her imaginary friend, tell you about their adventures together, about its likes and dislikes, or where it comes from, listen and be interested. An imaginary friend is often a way for children to participate in conversations where they are the experts on something.
• Be hospitable. Just like you would do in other cases of imaginary play, you can agree to say good morning to your daughter imaginary friend at breakfast if your daughter asks you, but inside the limits of what would be acceptable for pretend play.
• Remember that having an imaginary friend is not a cause for concern on its own, but if you notice your child appears unhappy or withdrawn, talk with your pediatrician about it or ask for a psychologist referral.

If you want to read more about this, here’s a link to a good article about imaginary friends by New York Magazine:

The perks of helping my kid learn about money and managing an allowance

Most of us would agree that being money-wise and a good savings manager is a crucial skill for life, but this might never prove as true as when you become a parent. We all know how challenging at times can be to navigate around finances and would therefore like to raise money-wise children into successful adults. But are preschoolers ready to learn about handling a small amount of money? Are there real benefits of doing so? And, what’s the best way of learning about finances for small children?

Developmental and social psychologists have stated that the kid’s first and intuitive experience of money is shaped by how it is managed inside the family. Also, frequently, their first encounter with personal money is through a small fixed allowance that is given to her periodically, usually granted that she has been on good behavior.

Beyond functioning as a reward system for helping around the house, giving a young child the responsibility of deciding what to do with her savings has its benefits. Receiving an allowance does influence spending behavior in school-aged children. For example, in 1991 researchers from the University of Toronto studied kids that were given 4 dollars, either in cash or in a store credit, as an allowance and kids who weren’t. The children that didn’t receive an allowance at home spent more money when they received a credit card than when they received cash, while the kids that had experience with self-managing an allowance spent the same amount whether they received a credit card or cash. This effect was equally strong regardless of age, meaning that the 6-year-olds that had experience with an allowance where more sophisticated about money than the 10-year-olds that didn’t.

Four years old is a good moment to start teaching your daughter about managing her finances. Here we offer some tips and insights into how you can use your child’s allowance to foster her understanding of cause and effect, patience, hard-work, generosity, and planning ahead:

• Divide money for “saving”, “sharing” and “spending” using 3 separate piggy banks or money-jars. Show your little girl how to divide equally her allowance into the three jars and what use does the money inside each jar has. For example, the saving jar could hold money until a small toy can be afforded, the sharing jar can be used for donating for a cause that she likes or for helping a sibling or friend who is saving for something, while the spending money can be used for buying stickers.
• Help your kid set a goal like buying a toy she wants. Choose something that is not too expensive or she´ll get frustrated after a month of saving. It is normal for preschoolers to struggle with tolerating frustration, so help them build patience by setting an attainable goal with a small timeframe.
• When a goal is reached, remember the small steps it took and celebrate the patience and the importance of working and waiting.

As an added value, teaching your daughter about money has many developmental perks! It will help your child’s cognitive development and exercise her abstract reasoning, conceptual thinking and problem-solving skills, as well as the socio-emotional aspects of experiencing and tolerating delayed gratification and sharing with others, among other things.

If you like the topic and want to learn more about your child’s math skills, you can check out these links:

Exploring Money in Pre-K

My young child was born a scientist! Ideas for fostering discovery at home

If you’ve ever watched a young girl engaging with her surroundings spontaneously, you’ve noticed that young children approach daily life activities and objects with the curiosity of a postdoctoral scientist. Be it in the kitchen or in the playground, they are intuitively observing avidly, testing ideas, asking creative questions and inventing.

What can you do to foster your toddler’s natural inclination towards discovery? Here we propose some easy and fun activities that you can do to encourage her in the quest of exploring the world she is growing in:

• Classify. Sort out day-to-day objects around the house in categories. For example, fruits with edible skins vs those that have to be peeled.
• Explore magnetic forces with a fridge magnet. What is attracted by a magnet and what isn’t?
• Encountering her shadow. You can interact with a shadow in many ways to see what happens, like trying to step on it, noticing its size and shape, and its relationship to the sun or to light.
• Do a night-time puppet-show using your hands to cast shadows.
• Explore motion and gravity. What rolls like a wheel? You can use soda bottles, rocks, apples, books, leaves, etc.
• Look out the window and note the weather. Measure rainfall on a jar outside if it looks like it’s going to rain in the morning. Before breakfast, set a time for “weather-watching” and discuss cause-and-effect between the weather outside and what clothes it might be better to wear that day.
• Explore small things or details using an unbreakable magnifying glass.
• Make a bird feeder by coating a large pine cone with peanut butter mixed with corn meal, and then rolled in birdseed. You can watch the birds fly for a snack.
• Observe an animal going home. For example, watching where birds go, in bushes or in high trees? Or follow an ant when it takes supplies into the anthill. You can then discuss what are some similarities between your home and that of different animals.
• Arrange objects. First from smaller to larger, and then, a more difficult level of doing so, from largest to smaller.
• Watch the clouds. You can both roll back and observe their shapes and the different types of clouds. Are all of them similar in shapes, size or color?
• Press flowers inside books.
• Make leave prints.
• Paint stones as paperweights, emphasizing if there’s a kind of stone that is easier to paint on.

If you’d like to explore some additional resources on this topic, you can check out this link:

The benefits of pretend play on children’s development

Not all play involves games of tag or jumping rope. You may have seen the term “make believe play”, “pretend play” or “imaginative play” before, but what does this really mean?

It might be a curious experience to watch a preschooler playing with blocks and talking to herself animatedly. As adults, we might think this feature of childhood is simply a phase of growth towards logical thinking. In 1962, psychologist Jean Piaget discovered that this “symbolic play”, although less sophisticated than playing with peers, sets the base for assimilating the adult world’s complexity. It’s the base for one of the characteristics that makes us human: imagination.

From around 3 to 7 years of age, children act fantasy stories that playfully express, explore, and process emotions and ideas. The benefits of pretend play have been extensively researched; here are some of them:

• Exercises the capacity to think from a different person’s point of view, and to understand that other people’s emotions and thoughts are separate and different from our own. It allows kids to get a sense of what others may be feeling, how they might react and, therefore, how to deal with interpersonal situations.
• Develops the capacities for narrative thought, logical sequencing and elaborate an experience into a story: with a beginning and end, order, and with social and emotional scenarios that coexist and may at times be at odds with each other.
• Allows children to safely feel and express anger, sadness, fear, and also gives them a way to control those feelings by steering the story onto familiar and happy outcomes. Russian developmental psychologist Lev Vygotsky understood pretend play (like all social experiences) to be a major catalyst of development and self-regulation.
• As Erick Erikson assessed in 1950, make-believe play allows children to explore different social roles and lets them develop a more sophisticated sense of future. They are able to imagine endless courses of action in the present, intersect with other people, revisit important memories and anticipate possible outcomes for the future.
• Provides an early ground to learn and enact the rules of social life. When preschoolers play with peers in storylines constructed by their conjoined imaginations, they go through complex negotiations about the roles, settings, actions and conversations carried out inside the play. As Vygotsky studied, this demands to continually apply social conventions, cultural rules, and create models of cooperation.

If you are interested in the science behind the perks of pretend play, and its role in children’s development, you can check out this article by Scientific American:

The role of imaginative play in your three-year-old’s cognitive and social development

Acclaimed child-development psychologist,Lev Vygotsky, proposed that imaginative play allows young children to start to understand the difference between objects in the real world and their symbols (be it words, other objects, or thoughts about the object in question). This undoubtedly sounds intuitive for an adult, but is no small task for a toddler’s developing brain!

Young children’s efforts at imaginative play reveal that recognizing the differences between mental symbols and the real-world objects is at first quite challenging. A group of researchers from the Department of Psychology at Emory University found that, before two years of age, kids can’t really engage in imaginative play with toys unless they are very realistic-looking or very familiar to them, like a toy telephone they can imitate mommy with. Between 2 and 3 years old, children start to imagine richer and more complex objects and situations without using lots of props and support from the real world.

Developmental psychologist Doris Bergern PhD, from the University of Miami in Ohio, review the scientific literature about the role of pretend play and the cognitive development of children. She found that high-quality pretend play is an important facilitator for abstract thinking and the ability to see things from different perspectives. It also enhances the child’s complex cognitive processes and can predict his social and linguistic competence.

The benefits of exercising a rich imagination during the first years of life are longstanding, and even withstand the trials of adulthood. In a 1990 published study, developmental psychologist Jerome Singer PhD proposed that there’s a link between the richness of imaginative play a person engaged in while being a toddler, and a greater “openness” of personality when they became adults. In other one of his studies, they followed 3 to 4-year-old kids for a year, and found that the more a child played make-believe, they were less impulsive, more cooperative, and better able to discriminate reality from fantasy when playing with peers.

How to encourage imaginative play? A good tip is to have minimally structured toys around so that your child can engage with them freely. Mary Ann Pulaski’s famous 1973 study found that kids as early as 4 years old responded differently to highly structured and specific toys than to simple ones. Minimal materials like drawing paper, crayons, paint, play-dough, blocks, rag dolls, vehicles, and costumes elicited significantly more varied themes to play, and richer stories than very specific toys or dolls. They also found that the older the kids were, they used less-realistic objects and transformed them when playing because their representational skills were more developed (ex. a 5-year-old pretending a box is a rocket going into space). So if your child is 3 or 4 you might want to have simpler toys representing commonplace objects around.

If you want to read more about pretend play, imagination, and its role in early childhood development, you can read an interview with child psychologists Dorothy and Jerome Singer here:

Encouraging my little one’s discovery, art and science interests!

After your baby is born, getting to know anything is a new adventure, and of course the environment in which your child grows up has an effect on his experiences and greatly influences his development. Keep reading to find effective suggestions on how to foster your little genius’s mind!

You’ll notice your little one is adventurous and excited about everything, especially when it’s something new. When we are interested or motivated about something, dopamine is released inside our brain. And when this happens, it is more likely that we remember the activity we are doing because, upon dopamine’s release, the brain feels rewarded. When we reinforce our brain with positive outcomes, the rewards center will help us remember that activity and keep our brains motivated.

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Creating a positive learning environment at home


Babies’ brains are like sponges – they are constantly absorbing, forming new ideas from stimuli in their environment. That’s how they learn. According to a recent study from NYU, there are a few things you can do to create a strong learning environment at home.

The study followed a group of children from birth through 5th grade, tracking the influence of early home learning environments on later cognitive skills. Researchers found that the learning environment at home plays a powerful role in shaping kids’ cognitive and linguistic abilities. They found that a strong learning environment has three main features: quality parent-child interactions, the availability of learning materials, and children’s participation in learning activities. Let’s break them down.

Quality interactions: Spend quality time with your little one every day. Sit and play on the floor, talk to him or her – engage! When you’re playing together, let him or her lead and then join in on whatever catches his or her attention. Point to objects he or she is watching and name them. Respond to your little one’s cues promptly – like identifying if he or she is hungry or in need of a diaper change. It’s important that your baby feels secure so that he or she is willing to explore his or her environment. Continue reading

Exactly how big a deal is drawing?

With the sudden boom on computers, tablets, and phones as convenient playtime devices, it seems we’ve lost a little touch of one of the most basic activities that can further develop your little one’s fine motor skills.

Between the age of 12 and 18 months, it’s possible your baby will want to write and draw anywhere he finds, be sure to encourage him to give it a try, directing his attention to an appropriate canvas! There is endless research that suggests drawing, doodling and scribbling play a larger role in child development than we first thought.

What are some of the benefits of drawing? 

  • Further develop your little one’s motor skills such as holding and hand-eye coordination, both of which will ultimately help him dominate writing and drawing on a higher level.
  • Get those creative juices flowing!
  • Even though they’re still young, children need outlets where they can express themselves, drawing is a perfect way to do so.
  • They can learn in a visual and easy way differences and similarities in shapes, colors, and sizes.
  • Understanding that when pen hits paper a mark is made, your little one gets to experience cause and effect first hand.
  • Drawing can serve as a great distraction and has been shown to improve mood.
  • Encouraging your child’s creativity has benefits in their ability to solve problems later on.
  • When kids feel good while creating something totally new it helps boost their self-confidence and later on, will feel the freedom to experiment and create new ways of thinking or doing something.

There are different ways to encourage your child’s creativity, independence and artistic skills. The following are just of a few of the infinite possibilities: Continue reading