When it comes to growth and development, more and more research demonstrates the importance of being able to mentally stimulate children, especially in their early years.
But why is this process so important? And how can parents encourage mental stimulation without overwhelming children?
Why is it important to mentally stimulate children?
The importance of creating a mentally stimulating environment starts when children are born and is most critical up until age four, according to a 20-year study from the University of Pennsylvania.
During this time, the more parents can mentally stimulate children, the more developed parts of the brain associated with language and cognition are and will continue to be for years into the future.
Originally, experts only knew the significant impact negative experiences had on the brain during childhood.
Children who were abused or neglected, for example, were more likely than others to have have developmental and behavioral issues later in life. Some ended up so severely impacted by their early-life experiences that they were never able to function normally as adults.
With this evidence of such influence on the brain during those first few years of life, researchers began to speculate positive and enriching exposure had just as much of an impact–but in a beneficial way.
After years of study, it was confirmed that cognitive stimulation from parents prior to and at the age of four was the key factor in predicting the development of several parts of the brain cortex as much as 15 years later.
“Parents may not be around when their teenage children are faced with important choices about choosing peers, experimenting with drugs, engaging in sexual relationships, or staying in education,” Andrea Danese, a clinical lecturer in child and adolescent psychiatry at the Institute of Psychiatry, King’s College London, told The Guardian. “Yet, parents can lay the foundations for their teenage children to take good decisions, for example by promoting their ability to retain and elaborate information, or to balance the desire for immediate reward with the one for greater, long-term goals since a young age.”
How can parents mentally stimulate children?
Understanding the importance of why it is necessary to mentally stimulate children is the first step toward laying a good foundation for later in life.
How to go about this can vary depending on the child and the parents, but Judy Van Ginkle of Every Child Succeeds told ABC Global the easiest ways to provide mental stimulation are through reading and constantly talking as a child grows.
“The most important overall lesson is it’s important to read and talk to your children. You just talk and talk and talk,” said Van Ginkle, who runs a home visitation program aimed at helping mothers and children succeed.
Van Ginkle initiates home visitations during pregnancy and up until a child turns four to ensure parents have the information and tools they need to give children a head start.
But reading and talking, while the easiest ways to mentally stimulate children, are not the only methods out there.
TLC offers these tips to help parents with the process:
- Choose the right toys for your child. Children between the ages of 12 and 24 months typically benefit from interactive toys such as blocks, shape recognition toys, push-pull toys, pounding toys, and toys which require lots of handling or sorting. As a child ages, toy preference advances to talking toy, noisy toys, puzzles, and play scenes.
- When reading to children, don’t just read the story line and call it quits. Story time is a good time to talk about pictures and to elicit a response from the child regarding favorite characters of scenes. Interact.
- Encourage creativity in children by providing craft items and items designed for imaginary play, like costumes.
- Expose your children to classical music even if it isn’t always to your taste. Research suggests classical music, or music with many different instruments, is highly stimulating to the brain.
- While significant television time isn’t recommended for children, if you do need to let your child watch television, make sure it is a stimulating show; not one with violence or a lot of action, but one with music and colorful characters.
- Take time to go outside with children and explore nature. There are so many animals and plants which offer interesting textures and colors. Nature is an easy way to mentally stimulate children as it is always moving and changing and full of activity. Let them touch, smell and taste and ask questions about what they experience.
Avoid overwhelming children
As parents it’s easy to get caught up in the urge to mentally stimulate children as much as possible, assuming it will give them that much more of an edge.
While it is important to encourage children, it is also important to do so at their pace.
Every child is different, and bombarding young child with too much at a time will only cause frustration and negatively impact progress.
Mentally stimulating children isn’t about maintaining a strict education schedule or exposing children to new things constantly.
Good mental stimulation is just about a regular routine–done smartly. When the television is on, make sure it is appropriate programming; when outside, be sure to encourage children to explore their world and do not reject questions.
These easy methods, coupled with a caring, nurturing environment will give children the best chance they have to make smart choices later in life.