The Wriggler #HelpThemLearn Cognitive Development Series
As a mom of two young kids I know that it can be difficult at times to come up with ideas for activities we can be doing to entertain our little ones and promote their learning. It can be particularly tricky in that period from around 6 months to 3 years of age, which we know is a critical period of brain development, but is also a time before they've started pre-school or school, so it's the time, perhaps more than ever, that we are their primary educators.
That's why, as a practicing Educational Psychologist with many years experience assessing and making recommendations to promote cognitive development from those earliest days right up to adulthood, I've put together The Wriggler Help Them Learn series. You can find out more about the Help Them Learn series here.
At the centre of the Help Them Learn series are the 7 cognitive abilities that we all use throughout life to help us learn. I've given a more detailed discussion of those 7 cognitive abilities here.
What I'd like to focus on in this post though is the WHY of the Help Them Learn series. We can find lots of fun play ideas on Google, Pinterest and Instagram. The difference with the Help Them Learn series is that we focus on WHY each activity is worth doing, and when your child will use the skills they are developing in each play plan throughout their lives.
I've given an overview of each 'WHY' below.
Crystallised Knowledge is one of the most fundamental abilities in cognitive development. While Fluid Reasoning helps us solve new problems that we've never encountered before, our store of Crystallised Knowledge helps us navigate almost every other area of daily life. From knowing the names of objects, to understanding how things work and using verbal reasoning to express your opinions, there is hardly a part of your day in which you're not using your Crystallised Knowledge.
In cognitive assessments, I assess it with lots of different types of tests. General knowledge questions, e.g. What's the capital of Bulgaria?, vocabulary questions - 'what does 'inconspicuous' mean?', verbal analogies, e.g. 'bird is to fly as fish is to ___' and social comprehension questions, e.g. 'Why is privacy important in today's world of social media?' are but a few examples [Tell the truth...you answered those questions in your head, didn't you? Our thirst for knowledge is insatiable!].
While our amazing little babies are born with so many innate abilities and are by no means 'blank slates', they also have soooo much to learn, don't they?! They somehow have to figure out that everything they see has a name and to learn what those names are; they need to understand how things work, they have to absorb and remember information about people, places, animals and the world in general and somehow integrate all of that to pass tests in school and survive in college/work/life in general.
I sometimes think that evolution could be a bit more efficient at passing on all of the information that we as parents have spent 20 or 30 years accumulating by the time our little babies come along, but until it catches up, we'll continue to point at every bird and helicopter we see in the sky, name every animal and unashamedly imitate their animal noises and actions, and answer the nearly 300 questions that the average 4 year old asks every day to help feed their curious minds.
And rest assured - doing all those things works, so keep it up!
Fluid Reasoning is a biggie in terms of cognitive ability. In fact, for a long time, theorists believed that Fluid Reasoning and only one other ability accounted for ALL of general intelligence, not the 7 we have today. Being able to solve problems, think on your feet, improvise and use reasoning to come to logical conclusions are all part of fluid reasoning. In school, mathematics and science subjects rely heavily on good fluid reasoning skills, particularly at the higher levels. If you think back to school state math exams, there are always some questions that are easy to answer with the formula but then there are questions where the formulas have to be applied in a new or different way to solve an unusual problem. These questions test fluid reasoning to its limit!
In everyday scenarios, figuring out a different route home when your usual road is blocked, finding a way to get into your house when you've locked yourself out and the neighbours who have your spare key are not home; improvising for dinner when you realise you've left one of the key ingredients behind in the shop; and solving the problem of childcare when your usual provider is sick (including when that's you!) all use fluid reasoning skills to solve. If you ever find yourself talking through problems by saying 'If we did ... then ...' or 'what about if we tried x for y', you're using fluid reasoning.
When developing your baby or toddler's fluid reasoning ability, it's less important which toy you use and more important HOW you use it. The way you as the parent mediate the experience can make a big difference. The key is to start getting your little ones to think about their thinking. For toddlers, getting them to tell you how they built things or solved puzzles, or getting them to predict what might happen if they do x or y, will help them to interact with the world at a deeper level. For younger babies, the simple act of talking about what they are doing, or giving them the chance to experience cause and effect, for example, if they bang a lid with a spoon it makes a noise, is fluid reasoning in its earliest form. While building a Lego model by following instructions uses Visual Processing skills, building a tower as tall as a toddler that stands steady without using any instructions is fluid reasoning at its best!
Visual processing is a crucial ability that we all use every day. Reading maps, parallel parking, building flat-pack furniture, packing items in a suitcase and arranging (and rearranging!) cases in the trunk of your car to make them fit are simple everyday tasks that involve visual processing. In school, topics like trigonometry and algebra in maths; woodwork; metalwork; technical graphics and geography all rely heavily on visual processing skills. Construction workers, photographers, interior designers and architects are but a few professions that also use visual processing skills. By helping your baby or toddler manipulate different shapes, compare sizes and fit objects together, you are giving them the building blocks that will help them complete these visual spatial skills as a child or adult.
Auditory Processing will play a big part in your little one's life when they start school and learn to read. While you might think we read with our eyes, there is also a big part of reading that uses auditory skills. We need to learn that each letter makes its own sound, and that these sounds can be blended together to make lots of different words. You can help build these auditory skills long before they start school, which can set them up for success once they're ready to learn to read.
In cognitive assessments, auditory processing is assessed in a few ways. Most of them involve listening to a CD (yes, we still use CDs!) and answering questions about rhyming, breaking words into different parts, or repeating what they've heard. We're basically trying to get a sense that they've understood what they've heard and can see how sounds and words are connected.
I think it's important to say that I'm not giving the message that we should be trying to teach our babies and toddlers how to read! In fact, quite the contrary - trying to teach children to read before they are ready to can mean they experience failure from the outset which can lead to negative associations before they've really started. There is plenty of time in school to learn the mechanics of reading.
But, there are lots of skills that come before learning how to read individual words, such as rhyme, rhythm, song, and tuning in to what we hear. These are the building blocks we need to ultimately learn that the word 'cat' starts with the same sound as 'cup', and it rhymes with 'fat'. And not only that - that 'cat' is made up of three separate sounds 'c', 'a', 't' and that when they blend together they make 'cat'.
But that's way down the line! For now - let's just enjoy tuning in to what we hear - let's 'bing, bang, bong!'
Long Term Storage and Retrieval
Life is much easier when you can remember where you put things! But on a more serious note, do you ever notice that when things are organised it's easier and quicker to put your hand to something exactly when you need it? Or when your bedroom is tidy you feel less stressed and your mind seems clearer? It's similar with your brain - if information is categorised with clear associations, you can recall it quicker and more efficiently at those important times, like in exams, interviews or presentations - not to mention everyday things like finding gloves, shoes or keys to get out of the house in time.
Long-term storage and retrieval is assessed in different ways in cognitive assessments, but one simple way is to see how quickly the child or adult can name items in a category within a given time, so, for example, naming all the food they can think of in a minute. Time and time again, I see the children who score best are those who organise their thoughts using a system. So, if they have to think of foods, they'll name all the fruits they can think of first and then they might go on to different types of treats, and then maybe food they find in a fridge etc. In contrast, the children who struggle to remember more than a couple of words in the time limit call out words randomly that aren't really associated with each other - e.g. sausage, chocolate bar, lemon etc. These are also often the children who find it difficult to organise their thoughts in essays or give relevant, specific answers to questions in exams.
It might seem strange, but organising the toys in your house by category as much as possible is the foundation for helping your child to internalise these categories as they grow. As a general rule, trying to have a policy that 'every toy has its own home' and that the home makes sense because it's shared with similar toys, will give your little one a great start. And if possible, getting them involved in the organising (and tidying up every day!) will help both you and them in the long run!
Short Term Memory
...this one doesn't need too much explaining! We know how short term memory features in our every day lives and what it feels like when it let's us down - like forgetting what we went upstairs for or forgetting a new person's name when we suddenly have to introduce them to someone else.
Short-term memory plays a big role in school. Listening to a lesson, following simple instructions from teachers, e.g. 'take out your books and turn to page 17', and remembering spelling and tables all rely heavily on working memory.
Some would argue that our schooling system focuses too much on memory and less on understanding when it comes to measuring success. This is changing though and there is a move away from one final exam at the end of a year, which is often more of a test of memory than understanding, towards more emphasis being placed on continuous assessment. However, there will always be an important place for rote learning in education. By using our short term memory to practice and rehearse, for example, times tables, we can move that information into our long term memory more efficiently. This then frees up our short term memory again for us to use it for new tasks.
By doing these simple short term memory games with your baby or toddler, you are building up their capacity to hold small pieces of information in their mind for a short time, e.g. where you hid a toy etc., and use that information to solve problems, i.e. find their toy so they can play with it! They'll use these skills of short term memory throughout their lives.
While many of the other cognitive abilities involve quite complex reasoning skills, processing speed tasks are not generally difficult in terms of complexity. When I assess processing speed in a cognitive assessment, the child or adult is usually timed doing simple paper and pencil clerical tasks that need speed and accuracy.
In school, copying notes from the board, organising books and materials, and completing written assignments involve processing speed. At home, getting dressed in the morning, doing homework efficiently and doing simple chores like tidying up toys also involve processing speed skills.
Just because they are not complex though does not mean they're not important. Processing speed features heavily in family and school life and can be a big source of frustration and stress on a daily basis. There's not a home where there won't be at least some arguments about 'put your coat on', 'where are your shoes?', 'we have to leave NOW!' - these are part and parcel of normal family life. But for children with a genuine difficulty in this area, these simple tasks form a constant source of frustration for the child. To be honest, it can also be irritating for the parent who is trying to stay patient while also finding it hard to understand why they can be so 'clever' in some ways and so 'lazy' in others which, for the child with genuine difficulties, is not laziness at all.
It doesn't end in childhood either. Even as adults, the simple tasks of getting up in time, organising clothes, food etc to get yourself and/or the kids to creche, school, work etc, are daily chores that are not complex in terms of understanding, but need you to be able to act quickly to get work done. At work, clerical tasks like typing, writing, managing time etc. are all also made easier with good processing speed skills. While there might be many reasons for someone to be late or miss a deadline, those of us who really struggle with time management on a regular basis and staying focused to follow through with simple tasks may have difficulties in this area.
Processing speed develops naturally for most children and can a tricky to enhance in early childhood as babies and toddlers often don't even have the motor skills to perform common tasks properly, let alone quickly. However, by trying these simple play activities you will be encouraging reaction time, decision speed and simple motor skills, which all ultimately feed into processing speed ability.
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