When basic Safety and Self Esteem needs are met, children feel comfortable taking risks, a prerequisite for being intellectually secure, and for developing cognitive and creative abilities.
Intellectual Stimulation. Children are not born as a blank slate. Everyone has certain DNA that determines specific traits. But children are born naturally curious about their world, and in that sense are already intellectually secure and ready for cognitive and aesthetic stimulation. When basic needs for food, sleep and shelter are met and children feel loved and emotionally secure then they are ready to learn. Stimulation is critical, even from infancy.
Infants who receive too little food, sleep and love as is the case in orphanages, for example often have dramatically stunted cognitive and linguistic abilities. Infants recognize their mother’s face and whether she is smiling, or frowning; and they behave accordingly.
Brain research tells us that art and music make a big difference in intellectual capacity, even from early ages. Children who hear music, see art, look at books, have conversations with their parents and others, and go places and do things, come to kindergarten with a higher level of cognitive understanding than children who are neglected in these areas.
Cognitive stimulation is the key, and kids do much better when their parents spend time reading to them, talking to them about the world, and showing them how to do things, whatever that might be. When both parents are working, it’s very difficult to spend time talking to your kids, but it’s essential for their personal and life success.
In a university preschool that I directed, we enrolled a 3-year-old girl with Downs Syndrome. Her mother said that when Sally played the piano simply by hearing her sister at practice, her mother could hardly tell the difference. But when Sally came to school, it was all we could do to get her to make one or two crayon marks on a piece of paper.
However, by the end of the school year, and with no special interventions, we could not tell the difference between her artistic creations and those of the other children.
One day she actually put on a wig, primped in the mirror, and joined a group of children playing house, totally out of character for a child with Downs Syndrome! Sally had greatly benefited from being accepted, nurtured, and stimulated by her peers; and she reached a higher level, even though her cognitive limitations would always be there. This would never have happened if she was in a full-time classroom that was only for children with cognitive delays.
In a very real sense, every child has special needs. When these needs are recognized by their parents, and addressed when possible, every child has the chance to grow into their best self, whatever that means for them. It’s about maximizing our potential ? and this happens (or not) early on.
Most of us can remember a perceived snub or insult that has kept us from learning a new skill, or meeting new people, or feeling comfortable in certain situations. Fortunately for most of us, we also remember many positives to balance out the negatives but we know these early influences are extremely powerful.
Creativity. Creativity is the ability to take an idea or activity and expand on it in an unusual, or novel, way. This is where exposure to diverse information and people is essential. If we have never heard another language, for example, we have a very narrow idea about words, meanings of words, and culture. If we’ve only experienced one type of music, or seen only one kind of painting, then it’s much more difficult to come up with new and innovative ideas.
Some researchers believe that the current focus on achievement testing, fill in the bubble for the one best answer has created children who are less expressive, less imaginative, and less able to see things from a different angle or point of view. There’s some evidence to support this; which has significant implications for scientific discoveries, and even acceptance of a more global and diverse society. Focusing on little boxes of standards discourages playfulness, openness to new ideas, and fantasy that are critical for innovation.
The way in which parents and other caregivers encourage cognitive growth and learning is by talking to their kids, and answering their many questions with as much patience as possible.
Ask playful questions; why is the sun purple? and laugh with them about their answer. Jason needs to know the correct names of objects and colors, but he also needs to know that there are many things we don’t know about the world, there are many discoveries yet to be made by asking a few stupid questions.
You do not need expensive toys to stimulate intellectual and creative growth. In fact, children are often most imaginative when they’re encouraged to make their own games with sticks and stones and old boxes, which is more stimulating than only having expensive mechanical toys that break. I can remember growing up with very few toys but we created cars and houses out of cardboard boxes and made up our own stories about ourselves and other people. All kids commonly make mud pies and create their own explorer fantasies. All of this is ‘food’ for the brain, and results in highly-creative thinking and doing.
There are also many free or low-cost options. Libraries have books, DVDs, and computers as well as classes and events on a variety of topics. Take advantage of free days at the museums, walks in the park, community festivals, and so on. When you get home, have Jill write a story and/or draw pictures about her experiences while listening to free music from the TV, rather than just sitting and watching a TV sitcom. If she colors a tree pink, rather than green, don’t make fun of her or tell her to ‘do it right.’ Ask her about it, and learn from her answer. Enlist the help of older brothers and sisters. This helps them all learn and retain information.