Research on infant thinking suggests that babies are more complex thinkers than was once believed. There is now evidence that, by the end of their first year, children are capable of logical reasoning, testing hypotheses about the world and spending time pondering unexpected discoveries. And, like scientists, babies appear to use process of elimination to come to conclusions.
Young children aspire to repeat the words they hear most often, but context is as important as frequency: Before they use words like the or and, babies focus on words emphasized by their caregivers, those that describe their environment, and their personal interests. Cultural influence also plays a role: In some regions, a child’s first words tend to include more verbs, and in others, terms referring to extended-family relationships come first. In the U.S., where labeling and naming objects is a common part of infant play, babies are more likely to learn words like dog, cat, duck, and kitty. Through large-scale cross-cultural studies, though, a few universal words have been revealed: mommy, daddy, hello, bye, uh-oh, and woof-woof.
Metacognition, or the awareness of your own thinking and thought processes, is recognized as an important step in cognitive development—for example, when a child reads a page of a book, thinks, “I don’t understand what I’ve just read,” and then rereads it. An inner dialog about our thoughts benefits problem solving and decision making, as well as making meaning of new information and experiences.
Early exposure to language, conversation, and different types of stories has proven benefits for young children. However, the idea that intelligence is “locked in” during a child’s first three years does not reflect what researchers have learned about plasticity in the brain. While the early years are vital, neither intelligence nor personality is cemented during that period.
An involved father appears to make a potentially significant difference. Research has shown that children are cognitively healthier when their fathers are actively involved in their lives—even if they don’t share the same home. Studies of divorced fathers, for example, have found that, when they overcome barriers to involvement, such as limited opportunities to communicate, and remain actively involved in children’s education, kids go on to achieve higher grades, avoid disciplinary measures, and are less likely to repeat grades.
Significantly. Early exposure to language is at the core of intellectual development, predicting language skills, cognitive ability, and academic achievement. Research has highlighted the importance of early conversation in the development of language structures in the brain: The more conversation a child experienced, the stronger the connections between regions of the brain responsible for speech production and comprehension. And a body of research has found that rich, complex conversational turns are also essential elements of language development.
Yes, but it’s better if the child is playing, not just listening. Research has discovered cognitive benefits from learning to play an instrument at a young age, including greater executive function and cognitive flexibility, increased focus, stronger working memory, and an ability to shift between tasks. The idea that simply exposing a child to classical music, in the womb or in childhood, will boost his or her intelligence—the so-called “Mozart Effect”—has been widely debunked.
From their environment. Children are highly attuned to the people and activities around them, and will notice that some people do not look like themselves and that others have more resources. Significantly, research shows, they also notice adults’ nonverbal reactions to each other and are able to detect (and mimic) bias even if they are not able to verbalize it. Studies find that it is not only the difference between positive and negative reactions that children notice, but also between positive and neutral reactions, leading to bias toward even those who only receive neutral reactions from others. Other research into what’s known as the contact hypothesis, however, shows that close interactions with people from other groups can effectively counteract bias at a young age.
Discriminating fact from fiction can be especially difficult for young children, since their experience of the real world is limited and so much of the media to which they are exposed is based in fantasy or magic. For example, to a child, a picture book about actual astronauts and one about fictional aliens may appear equally real. Yet research shows that, as early as age 3, many children have developed an ability to determine whether content from stories and videos applies to the real world. A parent’s testimony of how the world works is an essential element in this development, along with children’s growing experience of the real world.
There has been a good deal of debate over the years about whether stories of Santa Claus, and parental efforts to actively maintain that Santa and other holiday-based characters are real, are harmful to children and their cognitive development. Research shows, though, that virtually all children figure out the truth about Santa Claus by around age 7, even without their parents confessing the truth, and that few children react negatively to the discovery. Children, research further suggests, implicitly understand that fantasy and pretend play is a healthy and fun part of their own development and so they rarely come to resent adults sharing fantasies with them.
Significantly. Unstructured “nature play,” as researchers call it, appears to positively affect development in a range of ways, including cognitive development, creativity, emotional development, social skills, fitness and motor-skill development. Such playtime is especially beneficial when it is unstructured, and children are allowed to physically and intellectually explore the natural world as much as possible without the direction of their caregivers. Many advocates, however, believe that children today are given much too little opportunity to explore the natural world.
Many experts worry that children spend too much time on screens and playing video games, and while parents should aspire to a balance of activities for their kids, a growing body of research shows that time playing video games—particularly action-based games—when not excessive, can bring some cognitive benefits, such as enhanced perception, executive function, mental flexibility, attention, memory, and decision-making skills, as well as improvements in visual processing. It may even help children overcome some of the effects of dyslexia.
Not necessarily. While some studies claim to identify a link between screen time and decreased cognitive development in young children, such research has been focused on the amount of time in front of screens as opposed to its content or level of interactivity—and the purported levels of decline are statistically rather small anyway. Other research actually suggests screen time that is not excessive, and that involves compelling viewing or engaging interaction, should not hamper a child’s development.
It may appear that this is the case, but research shows that the benefit does not last. Formal early learning does produce clear short-term gains for young children, giving many a head start in kindergarten or first grade. But the effect fades quickly: By second or third grade, children who attended formal pre-kindergarten programs are no longer further advanced academically than kids who started their schooling later; in fact, some research suggests that those who started earlier eventually fare worse than others.
Experts have long debated whether preschool and kindergarten programs should emphasize academic skills or socialization, but a growing body of research supports the latter, for both social and cognitive benefits. Some studies have suggested that while students raised in poverty who attended academic early-childhood programs had initial advantages over peers in elementary school, children who went to play-based kindergartens started earning higher grades by fourth grade. No matter what type of program a family chooses, emphasizing play, socialization, and initiative at home during early childhood delivers clear benefits for children in later years.
Take an active role in their education by helping them build a “scaffold” for achievement: Emphasize the importance of education by talking with them regularly about their school day, communicate with teachers, volunteer in school, and check in on homework—without being intrusive or jumping in to correct their work. In general, giving kids as much autonomy as possible, even when they encounter occasional setbacks, will help them build confidence in their own abilities and give them a better chance of achieving success down the line.
Children can gain some clear benefits from early exposure to computers and to programs that help them learn to read and write, and encourage creativity. But a body of research also shows that students remember information better when they write it down than when they type. Many schools today no longer require students to write their notes but it would benefit parents to encourage their own kids to do so anyway.