As a parent, you want the very best for your young children and at the top of your list is an education that will lay the groundwork for a stellar career. At the same time, you might have some concerns about the quality of the education at the schools they attend or worry that you are not doing enough to help them academically. But what can parents do to raise children that are problem solvers and critical thinkers, children that will succeed in a competitive workplace? How can you grow the finest young minds?
We spoke to Lauren Cross, a teacher and educational researcher, about how parents can help their children excel academically and socially.
“You can’t underestimate the value of a quality hour spent engaging with your child – but it has to be a focused, intentional engagement where the child is given opportunities to express themselves,” Lauren says.
She explains that the child should be allowed to lead the choice of activity. The parent should be fully engaged but follow the child’s lead and ask open-ended questions to express interest and encourage critical thinking. Puzzles, art or messy activities are all great, but shouldn’t be imposed on the child if that’s not what they want to do.
Lauren advises parents not to underestimate the power of reading to your children. “If parents read to their children regularly and consistently, they are laying the foundations for cognitive development as well as literacy.”
Again, she says it’s not just about the fact that you are reading to them, but how you do it as well. She advises reading a page and then asking open-ended questions like, “What do you think is going to happen next?” or “What do you think the boy in the picture is feeling?”
Lauren says that a lot of people feel that they are denying their children opportunities because they don’t have an iPad, but she feels that giving them unstructured materials – like empty bottles and cardboard boxes – and the opportunity to be bored so that they can develop their creativity is far more beneficial for young minds and for the development of gross and fine motor skills. Outside play time with natural materials is also very important.
Within reason, Lauren recommends allowing your children to create their own adventures with the things they find around the house. Accept that they might make a mess, but let them experiment.
She also advises creating spaces for them at home – a drawing area in your office, a counter top in the kitchen and some ingredients to experiment with, a stool with their own toiletries in the bathroom – so that they have access to a variety of real-world learning spaces and experiences and aren’t restricted to their bedrooms or a play room.
Most children are naturally active – even if they aren’t fans of a specific sport. Physical activity is important because it develops coordination and focus. It’s not necessary for them to participate in a disciplined team sport from a young age. Instead, spending time on swings or the monkey bars at a park, kicking a ball with mom, going for a walk around the block or learning to ride a bicycle are all positive physical pursuits for small children.
As they get older, you can be led by their interests to see which sports they want to get involved in. However, remember that physical, mental and social benefits can be gained from activities other than competitive team sports – for example, dance or martial arts. And if they need to develop team spirit, that can be found in other extra-curricular activities as well.
If you have a cousin who is a mechanic, an aunt who is a caterer or a grandmother who loves to read, let your children spend quality, one-on-one time with these adults as well. It can be very difficult for a parent to think outside of their own areas of interest to expose a child to all forms of learning and thinking, so open your child’s life up to as many responsible and interesting people as possible.
The most important lesson of all for parents, Lauren says, is Don’t Panic!
“Believe in your children. Whatever your worries about their future, your belief in their academic potential has a massive impact. In most cases, young children don’t need expert help or academic resources or sports instructors; they just need you, believing the best of them, and encouraging them to go on their own journeys of discovery.”