How to Make Your Kids Smarter

While we all want to claim that our children were born the smartest and most capable creatures to walk the earth, deep down we know that much of what our child will learn and accomplish will be the result of learned behaviours. While intelligence is a heritable genetic feature, each brain is capable of so much more growing and learning than we usually use. If you teach your kids how to make their brains faster and more flexible, they’ll be outperforming your neighbour’s offspring before you know it!

Since we were kids, a lot of information has come to light about when and how youngsters learn, and while we realize it’s a little bit late for us adults to reap those benefits, we are primed and ready to use our knowledge to help our kids be the best they can be.

Before you get ready to put on the Baby Einstein DVDs and set up a weekly tutoring session for your four-year-old, you should know that making your kid smarter doesn’t have to be about intensive lessons and thick books. Luckily, what makes the early years in children’s lives so crucial is that during this time your kids are built to learn. Their little brains are so busy making connections that you can slip Swahili into their day and they’ll be fluent in no time.

Because kids are sponging up so much information, many of these tips and tricks can be worked into daily life with your kids, so you can boost their IQs and have fun at the same time!

7 Learning Music

While much of our childhood education can pass with a blur, one of the most memorable achievements of primary school is learning to play the recorder.

Why on earth educators choose the recorder for students’ first instrument will remain a mystery for us lay people, although I have a deep suspicion it has something to do with torturing parents.

Nonetheless, I remember proudly carrying a recorder home in my backpack, along with some sheet music that I was to practice playing. Hours of off-tune beeping and booping (or however you might characterize the unmelodic noise that comes out of a badly played recorder) I’d put the thing away, barely better than before the practice began.

As terrible as it must have been for my parents to endure the ‘first musical instrument’ episode in my life, it turns out I may be better off for it.

Scientists are busy proving that learning to play a musical instrument can help us with speech and language development, too. Because we’re so busy with our ears all the time we’re playing music, we’re doing great practice for our auditory systems.

Parents don’t have to wait for our children to bring home instruments from school, either, since there are lots of simple ways to get instruments into your kids’ lives.

Ukuleles are making a big comeback lately, since they’re affordable and small enough to tote to your nearest campfire, and they don’t make nearly as ghastly a noise as recorders do. And kids can learn to play ‘Hot Cross Buns’ even on the tiny keyboards available at your nearest toy store.

There is one caveat to the advice on leading your kids to music: the cost of letting your kids learning an instrument goes up when you realize you may also want to invest an a soundproof room for your child’s musical practice time. 

6 Green Spaces

Lots of people like to wax poetic about their own childhoods, and how it was better/harder/made them stronger people, and that kids today wouldn’t be able to cope under duress. The truth is that different life choices mean we learn varying skills, and we’re not necessarily learning less from modern lifestyles. The human race is pretty resilient, and we’re pretty good at making the best of very different situations.

Still, it turns out that some things our parents did for (to) us may have been good for us after all: like making us play outside.

Most adults remember freezing outside in mittens and hats that were solid ice, making our way up and down a toboggan hill in so much clothing it felt like hiking in a Sumo suit. We built forts and dared each other to eat crab apples all while our parents had only a vague idea where we were. We may have felt forced to spend time outside, but those childhood adventures may have actually made us better.

So although our parents may have been “free-range” with us, telling us to go play outside and hoping not to see us again until the supper bell rang, they may have been giving us more advantages than they realized. Being outside for hours on end was probably good for our brains in one particular way: it turns out nature might make us smarter.

Research suggests that being in nature might make us less distracted, and cleaner air might improve our minds’ ability to remember. More than that, access to outdoor spaces makes us curious and engaged, and we take risks and try new things when we’re playing in wide-open spaces.

So what used to be a basic part of growing up is probably worth holding on to. While we have big worries about the health of our children as they grow up increasingly indoors, we should also consider the emotional and psychological impacts.

By all means, throw your kids outdoors more often, and if they complain you can fall back on an old parenting prediction: “you’ll thank me when you’re older!”.

5 Access to Bacteria

We live in a pretty germophobic culture right now. We hit the hand sanitizer several times a day, and wipe our office phones down with disinfectant wipes. Our household cleaners tout the ability to kill 99.9 per cent of, well, anything, and we loathe the idea of public bathrooms. We. Hate. Germs.

Okay, there’s a reason for most of our germy fears: our food system is so linked that one dirty factory can affect people across entire nations, and with our habit of global travel sicknesses can fly over oceans with airplane passengers in an afternoon.

In other ways, our fear of germs may be making us less healthy, and maybe less smart.

Slowly, we’re figuring this out and reintroducing some bacteria back into our bodies. We’ve started to recognize the benefits of probiotics in yogurt, for instance, because they help keep our digestive system working how it should.

It turns out, bacteria may improve our brains, too. Some research on mice showed that when some rodents were given a certain type of bacteria, they were able to be less anxious and faster at making decisions to get through mazes. Scientists believe the same bacteria may humans in the same ways, but we don’t need to be injected with it.

The critters the mice were exposed to live outside all the time. So all kids need to do to get at the healthy bacteria is to get dirty. Digging in the dirt, jumping in a leaf pile, or making a sand castle are enough to get a dose, and it appears kids need to be exposed on an ongoing bases to reap the benefits. So go on, let your kids get dirty, and maybe they’ll get smarter, too!

While getting down in the dirt is good for kids, it’s probably still a good idea to teach them to wash up before mealtime and after using the bathroom to keep themselves safe and healthy. Not all germs belong in our guts, and common sense is crucial.

4 Aerobic exercise

We know, we know. There’s an ‘epidemic’ of obesity in Western cultures, and we need to fit more fitness into our kids’ days. Sedentary lifestyles are blamed for everything from diabetes to attention deficit disorders, and still more experts are climbing on board the fitness bandwagon.

There might be one more reason for helping your kids become fitter: research is also showing that aerobic exercise, and in turn aerobic fitness, can make our kids smarter. It turns out that some of those same chemicals that course through our body after some physical exertion can improve our ability to focus and make quick decisions. Memory seems to improve in fit kids, too.

All the advice out there about kids and exercise stands to reason: we are animals that are made for movement, and so we should be allowed to move throughout our days.

That can be easier said than done. After all, kids sit at school all day, and then they ride the bus home and work on their computers throughout the evening. Relaxation time is more likely spent in front of the TV than in the park for many kids. So how do we work in exercise to make sure our kids are fit, especially in a culture that challenges parents for letting their kids out of the house unsupervised?

Any opportunity to encourage your kids into free, unstructured and fun play seems to be the way to go. Maybe you can be the parent in charge of organizing a neighbourhood pick-up hockey game, or challenging your kids to a game of Hide and Seek in the yard after supper. If you can do it safely, ask your older kid to ride his bike to his after school activities instead of giving him a ride. Doing so will offer him a sense of responsibility and independence as well as saving you time and some fuel money, all while getting him some exercise.

Even structured play like dance lessons or soccer practice will help your kids’ fitness levels. And more exercise means stronger bones and muscles.

However you make it work, it seems like there’s little downside to some extra running, and one benefit could be a smarter kid.

3 Don’t Tell Them They’re Smart

Now, I’m going to get some backlash from this. Parents are derided for not encouraging kids enough – or not in the right ways. Gone are the days when parents told kids to ‘pull up their bootstraps’ and do better in school or to ‘buckle down’ and get their work done (you have to wonder why the analogies are clothing related – are well fitting clothes beneficial to learning, too?). Nowadays parents will encourage and help their kids, find them tutors, or blame the teachers, but always, always let kids know that they’re plenty smart enough.

Experts disagree, though. Studies show that rather than praising kids’ abilities, praise their efforts instead, and you’ll help them a lot more. So instead of telling Junior he’s “great at spelling!” instead you can tell him “ you must have tried really hard to do that well!”

Apparently, telling kids they’re smart only makes them want to seem smarter. So they’ll take fewer risks, avoid answering questions they’re not sure of, and pick the easiest tasks that prove what their peers and teachers and parents are telling them – that they’re smart. Kids who are praised for their brains also do worse after a failure, or just give up altogether. This applies to the use of grades in adjudicating students’ performance in school too. Using As and Bs to tell kids who’s best only serves to put grades as the goal, not learning.

Interestingly, scientists believe that kids are worse off if they believe that smartness is a fixed trait – whether they feel they’ve been blessed with it or not. Believing that he’s smart or dumb and that will never change will actually slow down your kid’s brain development – research participants learned better when they thought they could get smarter with practice.

Instead of telling your kids they’re smart, praise them for studying really well, tell them their efforts are paying off, and that you’re proud of how hard they try at new or difficult tasks. That way, research says, they’ll want to repeat those behaviours, and actually will get smarter.

2 Let them Sleep

The gift of good rest is treated more like a burden on our daily lives. It’s hard to make time for kids’ sleep schedules: parents often don’t get home from work until late in the evening, so by the time the family gets fed, gets homework done, and has some down-time, bedtime gets pushed late into the evening.

It’s worse when kids get into extracurricular activities that take up part of their after-school time. Classes that don’t end until mid evening squish all other activities until later, and sleep gets postponed even more.

I say it’s time to defend sleep. Kids (and adults) benefit so much from a good night’s sleep – and they’re whole day is easier for it.

One study showed that kids who were given just a little less time to sleep each night for a week had more trouble keeping hold of their emotions, remembering things, and had more difficulty using their math skills than kids who were given extra Zs.

Kids need lots of sleep to manage their days: while toddlers need 11-14 hours of sleep between naps and bedtime, older kids between six and 13 years old still require 9-11 hours of sleep per night to perform their best. With our daily schedules requiring the family to wake up at seven in the morning, that means some kids might need to be in bed as early as eight in the evening to reach their peak abilities the next day. It might be worth switching your day around to give your kid a leg up in their daily routines.

Another study showed that new information is easier to learn and remember when we’re allowed to sleep right after taking it in – suggesting study times should allow for a nap afterwards to make them most effective.

Knowing what a difference it makes to kids’ ability to learn and retain information, sleep should be at the forefront of your strategy to make your kids smarter – and then you and your spouse can have an hour or two each night to yourselves!

1 Let them Play

Go figure! The thing kids crave doing more than any other is a thing that can make them smarter and better-adjusted individuals.

While our culture prizes the value of knowing more – learning languages, music, and studying night and day, it’s important to realize a balance in our lives – and in our kids’ lives. Our kids will perform well in school if they know their academics, but as early as University level other skills will show themselves to be every bit as crucial to their success as knowing things. The ability to learn other things is among them. Part of the way we make our kids versatile and well-rounded is to let them play alone and in groups, to discover and learn in their own ways.

There’s been a ton of ink spilled of late about the difference between structured and unstructured play, and rest assured both are good for your kid, so we won’t go overboard on discerning between the two. What’s crucial to note is that playing is important, and all the things that go with it: the relationships kids learn amongst other kids, decision making and risk taking, physical activity and so many other expert-named skills that make your kid a well-rounded person.

It all comes down to this: don’t schedule your kids’ entire days. And if you do, slot some of the schedule for “playing”. In play, kids practice being grownups. They interact with other kids, but also create their own worlds where they can test out different scenarios and lifestyles. By doing that, they are learning social skills and practicing cues they’ve seen in others, trying on different roles. It seems kids who have more play even handle stress better – and that’s a skill we all could use to improve on.

Basically, your kids have to learn how to be people. They need to interact with their peers and learn to judge and properly use their own abilities, too. We have to give them some space to make these discoveries on their own.

If you need another reason to let your kids play, here’s a bonus: while your kids have unstructured play in the yard, you get quiet time with a coffee and a paper. Now we can all handle stress better.

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