15 Ways to Build a Smarter Kid

I said that in 2019 I was going to write a series on this topic, and here it is New Year’s Eve and I haven’t! So here’s my outline, and feel free to comment with questions about these topics, and I’ll get to work on this in 2020!

UPDATE: I’ve now filled in the outline with links to old articles on some of these topics–there are more than I thought!–and I’ll add links to new articles as I write them.  There are now more than 15 main ideas here because I thought of some things not on the original list!

These are some relatively simple things I’ve done with my kids and/or that my parents did with me.  These activities developed our intelligence in various ways, helping us not only to do better in school but also to pick up on useful skills for life overall and to appreciate this Earth’s complexity and variety.

Building your child’s brainpower doesn’t have to be an expensive endeavor.  A lot of these experiences are available cheap or free!

You don’t have to set aside time dedicated to teaching your kids.  Most of these things can be worked into daily life, especially at times when you’re waiting for something–and setting the expectation that when you’re bored you look for something to think about has a very strong positive effect on the way your child uses her mind.

mother reading to 5-year-old girl

My mother took this wonderful photo of me reading to Lydia, Half Magic by Edward Eager.

Reading.  Tons of children’s books are available in public libraries or can be bought used at very low prices.  Don’t worry about having only new books–many stories are timeless, and seeing how things were done in the past can be very interesting.

Word games.  Playing with words helps us to think more flexibly about all the ways we can use our words, from silly to serious.

  • Here are 6 word games that are fun for adults as well as kids.
  • Games that involve reciting a rhyme, like these knee-bouncing games, build little children’s ability to predict events based on what they hear.

Counting things.  Number games.  Even in these high-tech times, working with numbers in your head is still a valuable skill, and learning to count confidently is crucial to developing a basic understanding of numbers and their relationships to one another.

  • This everyday educational game, developed just after Nicholas turned four, gave him lots of opportunities to practice counting higher than 20, pushing himself over those hurdles at the end of each decade: “twenty-niiiinne . . . thirty!”  Unfortunately, this particular game has been rendered almost obsolete by the reduction in cigarette smoking in our neighborhood–not that I’m complaining about that!  There are other things to count!!
  • Here are 6 Arithmetricks that make arithmetic easier and more fun.
  • GAME SHOW!! with math practice is a method for motivating your kid to do some multi-digit mental addition even when you’re too sick and pregnant to get off the couch.
  • Comparison shopping is using math to get more of what you want for less money!  Read about it in my articles on developing healthy eating habits and a supermarket field trip with Girl Scouts.

Navigating spaces.  To raise a person who can get around in the world, teach some way-finding skills and let them practice!  [My original outline also says, “Cubes vs. treerocks” and I’ll have to remember exactly what I meant by that…something about orderly constructed environments vs. natural landmarks, I think?]

  • Navigating into the New Year is the story of a power struggle that led to my letting Nicholas tell me how to get from our house to the playground, when he was barely four years old.
  • Walking to School gives my perspective, as a parent and as a former child, on the advantages of walking.
  • Gradually Expanding Range for a Child Walking Alone tells how we decided how far from home Nicholas was allowed to wander, and how it compares to what I was allowed to do at the same age.
  • In the process of explaining why my 12-year-old was riding public transit alone, I listed the concerns we had to work through to make this possible and how we resolved them.
  • Adventure in the Forest Across the Street is just one of many times the kid(s) and I have enjoyed a spontaneous Adventure in what looked like an unremarkable place.  This is an attitude I learned from my dad.
  • Instead of having your GPS tell you what to do, look up the route before you leave home and show your child how it looks on the map.  (This could be a paper map if you have the right one and can figure out the route for yourself, but talking through how to use an online map is educational, too!)  Talk through the directions, step by step, and note the places where you will have to be careful to get into the correct lane, etc.  Picture your child newly on his own getting lost in a place without Internet service, and teach him how to cope!
  • “Safety” is the top reason other parents tell me their kids aren’t allowed to do stuff.  I do worry about my kids getting hurt, but instead of hovering, I focus on teaching them how to think about safety:

Building toys.  LEGOs or blocks are better than Lincoln Logs, Brix Blox, discs, etc. that fit together in more limited ways–but whichever of these toys happens to come your way is better than none!  Even a pack of index cards or stack of old yogurt buckets offers the opportunity to build structures and learn about physics and balance!

Art.  Draw together.  Clay.  Have assorted materials available–you don’t have to spend a lot of money, just collect some stuff!  Make use of scrap paper and empty packages.  Buy crayons, glue, etc. in August to get low prices.

  • Nicholas made pizza box stained glass after being struck by artistic vision in a convention-center food court.
  • Paper link chains are easy for even a preschooler to make independently, after some instruction and demonstration . . . and not only are these festive decorations low-cost and environmentally friendly, but making them keeps the kid busy while you’re preparing for the party!

Guessing, theorizing, estimating.  We don’t know everything, but we can think about how it might work.

  • Here are some science projects Nicholas did between kindergarten and second grade.

Research.  Long before kids learn the critical-thinking skills necessary for seeking reliable information on the Internet, they can understand the idea of looking up things in a book!  Keep a dictionary and whatever other reference books interest you and are available affordably (they don’t have to be new), and use them as your first source of information when a question comes up.  Finding words in alphabetical order, looking things up in the index and turning to the right page in numerical order, and handling physical pages without paper-cutting yourself all are brain-building skills kids don’t develop using computers!

Speak standard English.  Another language or a local dialect can be useful, too–what I mean here is that when you are speaking English to your kids, using correct grammar and pronunciation helps them learn how to talk like people, whereas speaking only “baby talk” teaches them to talk like babies.  Of course, we sometimes feel so overwhelmed by the cuteness of a small child that we can’t help saying silly things like, “Who’s Mama’s izzy widdle wuggums?”–and sometimes we respond to a baby’s babble by repeating the same nonsensical sounds back to him, which does encourage him to communicate by demonstrating that we heard what he said!  You don’t have to be a purist.  Just, most of the time, speak clearly and simplify your word choice only as much as necessary.

At least talk about other languages.  You don’t have to be fluent in a language to know something about it.  Although there are advantages for children’s brain development when they’re raised bilingual or learn a second language at a young age, missing those opportunities doesn’t mean you’ve lost any chance to expose your kids to the richness of Earth’s linguistic diversity.

  • Read some stories or watch some videos that incorporate words from other languages.  These aren’t hard to find: “Dora the Explorer” and “The Lion Guard” videos and books are in our local library.
  • Look for a familiar book translated into another language for which you have enough sense of pronunciation that you can read the book aloud semi-competently.  Our library has Huevos verdes con jamon, in which we were amused to find that Sam-I-am’s name was changed to Juan Ramon to make the rhymes work!
  • Point out things written in other character sets.  (Instruction booklets often provide a good example–the same diagrams accompany very different-looking text.)
  • Try to spend some time in places where other people–especially other kids with their families–are speaking other languages in everyday interactions.
  • Maybe you know about 20 Spanish words–look for those words on signs and packages, and try to figure out other words from context or from their similarity to English words; try to translate the message from another language, and then read the English to see how much you got right!  (This is mostly of interest to kids who can read English, but some younger kids find it fascinating, too.)

Thinking out loud.  When your child is with you as you think through any process, just talk about what you’re thinking, and your child will pick up on many of the considerations that go into adult decision-making.

Metacognition.  “Why do we do it this way?”  “What is the right way to say this?”  “How do computers know what to do?”

  • Teaching healthy eating habits–or any kind of “rules for living”–works best when we talk about why we have this rule and how we apply it to specific situations.  Critical thinking also comes into play–check out what my parents taught me about TV commercials!
  • Early Encounters with Variables addresses some of “how a computer works” and “how to get the computer to do what I want.”
  • In my review of Bright April and a follow-up comment, I discuss some of the issues that come up when talking about differences between people (race and Down Syndrome) and kids’ need to know “the polite word” for each group–things seem more shameful when we have no word for them.

Using real things.  Books, machines, pencils, maps.  It’s easy to fall into the idea that now that your phone can do everything, you don’t need to have any of that old-fashioned stuff.  But working with objects you can touch is very different from the abstraction of using a touch-screen.  We advocate keeping babies away from video screens until 2 years old, introducing real things first, and later continuing to use real things some of the time and have them available for kids to choose.

  • A typewriter is a great toy!  In addition to the thrill of pushing a button to make a letter appear, kids can observe how the machine works and learn interesting skills like loading the paper.
  • At a mall, theme park, zoo, etc., show how you can use the map to find your way.

Making things.  It’s very satisfying to make some of your own stuff.

  • Cooking is a great hands-on activity, easy to work into daily life!  Measuring, physical dexterity, safety skills, nutrition knowledge, chemical reactions, tuning your senses of taste and texture–so many kinds of learning take place in the process of making food.  Having a children’s cookbook lying around–even if it’s not the best one!–helps inspire kids to get involved in the kitchen.

Fixing things.  Figuring out why a thing stopped working and how we could fix it is a challenge that’s somewhat harder to find now that so many devices are fully digital–but we still have doorknobs, clothing, plumbing, stuffed animals, and other things that can be repaired when they get damaged.  Then there’s the kind of “fixing” we do with high-tech devices: turn it off and back on, reset the prefs file, hold down this button–and if your kid knows more of those tricks than you do, getting her to explain how it’s done is good for her cognitive processes as well as useful to you!

Games.  Play of all kinds is important to learning, but there’s a special value in tabletop games: board games, cards, pyramids, etc.

  • Growing a Gamer Geek explains how to sort the games you want to play into those your young child can play, those he can play with help, and those he can play with modified rules.
  • Sometimes, a game inspires kids to work hard at a skill they “shouldn’t” have yet at their age.  Nicholas learned to play IceTowers at five!
  • In this review of three games that debuted in 2011 (two of which are still on the market), I explain how to play these games with kids of which age, based on experience running convention demos with my six-year-old assistant salesperson.
  • Learning to play by the rules is valuable, but sometimes playing your own game with the pieces can bring up all kinds of interesting ideas and even some math!
  • Nicholas decided on his own to make a board game based on the life of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.  In the process, he learned more about Dr. King and about the effects of structural racism.
  • …and then there are the games you make up to add some fun to a difficult situation!

Music.  Funny how my original outline left out this whole area, what with all the chatter about “the Mozart effect” and music lessons improving cognition . . . but music isn’t so much my thing as, for instance, reading is!

  • Here’s how playing a recording of The Nutcracker can encourage your child’s imagination and music appreciation–even if you can’t go to see the ballet!
  • School musicals are a terrific source of low-cost entertainment, often with live instrumental music as well as singing.  Seeing kids only a bit older than themselves performing may inspire your kids!  Here in Pittsburgh, school musicals are a big deal, and we look forward to the newspaper’s publication of the schedule so we can plan which ones to see.
  • Keep an eye out for school concerts, too!  They can be very charming, even if the kids aren’t so skilled–and for little children, listening to bigger kids play a familiar tune like “Mary Had a Little Lamb” on various instruments is quite a thrill.  Lydia at 18 months old had to be dragged home from a school concert shrieking, “HEAR IT AGAIN!!!”
  • Any kind of musical instrument you can get–a xylophone, a kazoo, a small electronic keyboard from a yard sale–gives kids an opportunity to practice their music-making abilities!

What are your favorite ways to boost kids’ brainpower?  Feel free to comment!

Visit Hearth & Soul for more great tips on a variety of topics!

8 thoughts on “15 Ways to Build a Smarter Kid

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