While following your baby’s lead is fundamental to her cognitive growth, stretching and challenging her mind can enhance her development and help her use her cognitive abilities to their full potential at every stage.
One stimulating way to excite, engage, and challenge your baby is to introduce her to something new. When your baby experiences novelty, her brain is activated, dopamine (the “feel-good” hormone) flows, and she begins to process the new information. Her brain works to fit her new knowledge into a pattern that meshes with what she already knows, thus allowing her to integrate her recent learning. When you introduce new experiences, objects, and ideas that stretch and challenge your child just beyond the limits of her cognitive abilities, you help her learn at the next level up, relative to her current abilities.
In their book Tools of the Mind: The Vygotskian Approach to Early Childhood Education, Elena Bodrova, PhD and Deborah J. Leong, PhD explain that some physiologists think that children can learn only up to their current level of developmental maturity. However, early-20th-century Russian psychologist Lev Vygotsky believed that brain development and learning work together and support each other. Therefore, exposing your child to information and learning experiences just beyond her developmental stage helps her attain the next level of cognitive development. In Vygotskian terms, this period is called the “zone of proximal development”, and the approach to learning is called “scaffolding.” With scaffolding, you provide supported learning for an emerging skill and then slowly pull away those supports as your child becomes independent in exercising this skill.
By teaching to the zone of proximal development, you continually provide novelty and keep your child reaching toward the next challenge. While this strategy may cause some struggle, it can also establish patterns of fearlessness, persistence, and a sense of accomplishment when learning. In many East Asian cultures, struggle is accepted as part of the progress of learning and accomplishment. Often the most successful person is not the most intelligent one, but the person who is not afraid to try, to work hard, and to head toward the unknown. You can support your child in attaining new knowledge and skills just beyond her reach by staying one step ahead of her learning.
Here are some tips for stretching and challenging your child:
- Know where she is developmentally—When you are aware of your baby’s current level of cognitive development, as well as the skills that are likely to emerge next, you can provide activities that support the next stage.
- Make novelty a regular occurrence—Your child needs some degree of routine, yet novelty inspires her to keep her mind active and challenged. Providing novelty can be as simple as varying your regular habits. Rotate her toys. Take her to places she has never seen. Go on a picnic, or simply take a bento to your backyard instead of serving it inside. Play a new song, or introduce a new game.
- Encourage imaginative play—According to Bodrova and Leong, children use self-directed play to try on mature thinking, which builds their neural pathways and aids in cognitive development. As they play house, doctor, mother, store, and school, they develop rules, follow those rules, and behave as the adults they are playing. Imaginative play can stretch your child to learn beyond her current level of development.
- Offer choices—When you encourage your baby to choose what to eat, what shirt to wear, or what toy to play with (within safe limits), you give her the opportunity to learn to weigh options, to make choices, and to experience the consequences of those choices. The opportunity to practice decision-making builds her sense of control, personal responsibility, and confidence.
A note of caution: As you use these techniques to stretch and challenge your child, be careful not to push her too much. Provide a support of scaffolding, and then slowly withdraw it as your child reaches her next level. Brain development is a series of stages that build upon each other, and each stage is significant. Rushing the process or skipping developmental stages can result in weaknesses in her cognitive functioning. If you push your child to learn something before she is ready, she may begin to fear failure, and her natural curiosity may be squelched. Each child is unique and develops at her own pace; be aware of your child’s emotional and developmental needs as you stretch and challenge her.