Recent research suggests that babies start learning before they are born. Researcher Christine Moon of Pacific Lutheran University in Tacoma, Washington, found that newborns respond to words when they hear the language of their parents, but not when they hear words in a foreign language. Previous studies proved that babies recognize and respond to their mother’s voice immediately after birth. Fetuses begin hearing sounds outside the womb about 10 weeks before birth. Clearly, they aren’t just hearing, but learning to recognize words and familiar voices long before they have the ability to speak.
Recent studies show that preschoolers are much more capable of learning than previously thought. The new findings turn conventional thinking on its ear. Math is rarely taught at the preschool level. New studies in cognitive neuroscience indicate, however, that 4-year-olds have the ability to do elementary math problems. Researchers discovered that most preschoolers had the ability to solve basic division problems using visual demonstrations with candies and stuffed animals. A study that focused on a child’s ability to connect letter combinations and sounds found that the skill is not fully developed until age 11, much later than previously thought.
Traditional preschool classes teach very little math. As science continues to study the development of cognitive thinking in children, some schools are adjusting their curriculums to accommodate the new findings. An early mathematics program taught in the Buffalo, New York, school system is gaining attention because of its success. Innovative math programs use a variety of techniques to teach numbers. Numbers appear in lessons, artwork, computer games and share equal time with letters. Lessons are tailored to a student’s individual capabilities.
There is still much to discover about the learning abilities of young children. The newest research indicates, however, that children are capable of more complex thinking than previously believed. What does the new research mean for parents and teachers? What can parents do to put their children on that path to strong minds and academic excellence?
How to Help Develop a Young Mind
Cognitive thinking, or the process of reasoning and engaging in a conscious intellectual activity, was thought to be a process of older children. Children are capable of far more, as recent research reveals. Parents play a key role in helping children develop the curious, analytic and strong minds that make them smarter and ready for the greater academic challenges ahead.
It’s easy to fall into the trap of thinking that a preschool age child is too young to learn complex concepts. It’s true that young children do not learn in the same way as older children do. Teaching scientific principles out of a book doesn’t work at the preschool level the way it would for a college-age kid. In fact, a 2012 study indicates that young children placed in highly stressful classroom instruction environments lack the development of desirable character traits, such as curiosity, perseverance, self-control, conscientiousness and optimism. What does work is capitalizing on their inherent thinking abilities. Preschool age children learn best when a combined approach using visual, audio, instructional and exploratory methods are used.
An excellent way to keep young children interested and engaged is by using music, visualization, art and physical activity that make learning fun. Math problems using stuffed toys and candies, marbles or other objects give children a visual way to explore and experiment until they figure out the answers. Exploring the outdoors provides a wonderful opportunity to learn about the natural word. Help build explorative, analytical, reasoning and critical skills by asking questions, posing problems and listening to the answers. If your child asks a question that you can’t answer, use it as an opportunity to involve your child in the research process, such as looking a word up in the dictionary. Young children have the ability to test theories and conduct experiments. Water is a great tool for lots of different types of experimentation. A plastic tub with water and food coloring is a fun way to learn about colors and color mixing. Children learn about the properties of water when they experiment with floating and sinking objects.
Developing thinking and reasoning skills at the preschool age helps build self-control and character, as well as a solid base for kindergarten.
Moving Beyond Preschool
Children with a strong background in critical thinking have a decided advantage in school. Parents may notice that their child has a pronounced interest in a specific area, such as science or math. Now is the time to start building on that base. Parents and teachers who work closely together to develop a plan to build on interests and strengths ensure that the child learns and grows in the school environment and does not become bored. Now is also the time to begin addressing any weaknesses. Again, parents and teachers working together can help the child improve. Parents should keep in mind that pushing children beyond their capabilities is detrimental, but if there is a missing skill set, it’s best to deal with it now, rather than later. Most students do well with one-on-one tutoring when they are having problems. The individual attention and ability to ask questions without classroom distractions are often the boosts a child needs.
As the latest research points out, children are capable of more than conventional childhood teaching methods accept. Schools are changing curriculums to address the needs of young children, but it’s a slow process. It’s up to parents to help their children build the analytical, reasoning and intellectual minds they need for future success.