So, who wouldn’t want to get the most out of their child’s brain – who wouldn’t want to have little child prodigy? In fact, this desire is so strong it’s considered a multi-million-dollar industry in the US. The only problem is that most of these ideas are junk. Einstein didn’t spend his early years in early learning classes practising mathematics and learning three foreign languages before the age of 5. In fact, he did what most kids did at that time – stay at home playing with a few toys (not educational ones) and didn’t start school until 6 as was, and still is, usual in Germany – and even there had troubles initially. That is insightful for what is considered, rightly or wrongly, one of the greatest minds of the 20thCentury. Research is showing what conditions the brain needs for optimal development and learning – and it isn’t a lot of what is sold to you…and most of it is free and easy!

So, let’s look at some of these things and what they can do for your child’s brain – then we have to have a little, and honest, look at ourselves the parents.

The (free) dirty little secret to massively improving your kids’ cognitive abilities

These days, early achievement is ‘in’. Get your kids into language classes for early years, get the musical instrument out, and get them into tennis classes as soon as they can walk. And then put them into a childcare with educational learning strategies. That should give you a child prodigy. Well no actually, it won’t – and it could even make your kid dumber, lose cognitive flexibility, and many other important skills such as creativity. Your kid’s brain develops at a given pace, but that pace is also different in different kids. 

There are some things that can be good. Early exposure to multiple languages is certainly positive. Sure, music is good, but it should be fun and unforced – obviously exercise is also good but drop the serious tennis lessons until a little later.

There is one thing that will boost almost all aspects of your child’s brain. It is simple – play. Yes, play and unstructured play at that. There is a time and place for structured play also, such as in playing structured games; be that simply hide and seek or various card games.

How does play help your child’s brain to develop. Well here’s is a list:

  • Creativity – finding novel solutions, imagination
  • Schema building – how the world works
  • Imagination – building complex alternative worlds
  • Theory of mind – how other people think
  • Problem solving – finding solutions to problems (often in novel ways – see creativity / lateral thinking)
  • Lateral thinking – thinking around corners and finding novel solutions
  • Counterfactual thinking – using facts and imagination and combining these in interesting ways
  • Social competence – when with friends listening and forming mutual plans
  • Linguistic skills – using a range of vocabulary (but also inventing new languages)
  • Powers of expression / explanation – having to express yourself and explain why you want to do what you want to do
  • Emotional regulation – through role playing / taking others needs into account
  • Mathematical skills – though using real world counting and numerical problems
  • Risk management – through interpreting risky situations and what is suitable or not
  • Attention – kids who are allowed unstructured play for 10-20 minutes can concentrate much better afterwards. This is much more effective, notably, than doing a sports programme for the same amount of time!
  • Calmness when older – animal studies show that when youngsters are allowed plenty of time to play, they are calmer as adults
  • Brain growth – animal studies have shown that play produces growth hormones and that are critical for brain growth. Play is essentially fertiliser for brain growth. This on top of all the above cognitive skills that are developed as part of play!

This means that play, particularly unstructured play, is not just good, but essential to building healthy smart kids. It may be counter intuitive, but there are heaps of scientifically significant studies that say this is what your kids should be doing. Yes, obviously there will be certain structured activities, but make sure you give you kids plenty of time to simply play with no stress or structure around it.

Small secret tip: it won’t harm you and may well give your brain a healthy boost if you play also!

Getting bored

Another interesting aspect of parenting, and related to unstructured play, is that of getting bored. We as parents seem to be hyper worried that our kids will get bored and spend all sorts of time giving them stimulus or plonking them in front of television or an iPad to give them something to do and give ourselves a rest. I know, I confess, I have done this many times myself. But getting bored is a natural part of life – don’t worry about it. Let your kids get bored because their brain will sooner or later (often sooner than you think) find a way out of it and start finding creative solutions to entertain themselves.

The big technology question!

I won’t go into the burning question on many parents’ minds in much detail – that of technology and social media. That is worth a separate post, or two, or three (but has been answered in many other areas). The science still provides some conflicting results. But two things are clear

1. Technology and social media are an important part of the world around us and of youngsters’ (particularly teenagers’) lives,

2. Kids are actually happier and have lower stress without social media.

So, the simple tips are:

  1. Use technology sparingly in younger years but they should also have access to it
  2. Make sure your kids have plenty of time for structured and unstructured play with themselves, yourselves, and others
  3. Give reasonable limits on technology use
  4. Plan time for play or family time when your kids are older
  5. Set technology free times / zones
  6. Set a good example yourself!

Over parenting

Are you following your kids exact steps, every piece of homework, every grade, accompany them to their multiple activities, and plan their future as best you can? You are then over parenting. Sometimes called helicopter parenting or more recently snowplough parenting: being involved in every aspect of your child’s life and helping and managing through this. Over-parenting has multiple negative impacts on children backed up by scientific studies such as:

  • Lower independence
  • Lower decision-making abilities
  • Lower coping skills
  • Increased anxiety 
  • Increased depression in later life
  • Lower self-esteem
  • Harder time finding employment

Children need space and freedom and a safe base (home and parents). Let them explore and encourage independence, let them fall, pick them up brush their knee (without fuss) and send them on their way again. This will help them develop as individuals and help their brains to develop the true independence and problems-solving and coping skills they will need later in life.

But what about school

Well it is back to school time after all. What about your children at school? Should you be following their grades and homework and sitting down with them every day to check that they have done what they should? No, you shouldn’t. You should obviously care about what they are doing but encouraging independence is a more critical life skill. You may have to give some children more support and more time to develop this independence, but independence should be your goal. 

Rather than telling them when to do homework ask them how they can make sure they get their homework done. If their grades are not up to scratch, ask them how they can improve them and how you can help. But always remember that independent self-management is what you would like to achieve – it will be better for your children and make your life a lot easier also!

Your child isn’t a genius

Yes, we all kind of want our children to be special, but remember also this could be us transferring our own wishes and our own lack of self-esteem onto our children. The term genius is overloaded anyway – it’s a bad word and I avoid it even for people like Einstein. But we do want smart kids, with heaps of common sense, who can lead enriched adult lives – and to do that you will need to enable your children to develop effectively without stressing them. Let them play, let them enjoy childhood, encourage them to be independent. Don’t panic when they fall or fail – help them up and help them find their own skills to move forward. Ironically doing this is more likely to enable your child to be successful than the tips to build your child’s “inner genius”. So, by not trying to build a genius you will build the brains of people who can likely do more in life – and that is what will make us proud as parents.