Ten Ways to Grow a Brain

I am a teacher who doesn’t believe in teaching.
Well, that’s not entirely true.
But when it comes to young children, I think the “teacher” shouldn’t be part of most learning experiences.

I believe young children are their own best teachers, because they are driven instinctively to grow their brains. As adults, we can best serve their brainy future-selves by optimizing their environment for brain growth, and helping it occur within structures that protect from overload or unproductive experiences. So here are ten things I believe any adult can do (instead of “teaching“) to support a child who is doing the hard work of growing smart.

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1. Give lots of affection. Touch builds brain cells, and showing love through hugs, cuddles, smiles, and pats on the back helps children feel secure and ready to engage with their world.

2. Provide lots of nutrient-rich and delicious food. Good nutrition builds the body AND brain! Plus a love for food and its processes develops the senses. Provide it, don’t force it. Children will eat when they are hungry.

3. Go outside. Again, rich sensory experiences make kids smarter. The natural world provides great stimuli compared to the materials and sounds of the indoors.

4. Don’t make learning painful. ‘Learning is fun’ is perhaps the best message your child can internalize in her formative years. Don’t pressure, drill, guilt, or coerce when learning is taking place.

5. Don’t make learning too easy. Flashy automatic toys or parental over-involvement in play can make things too easy for kids and send the message that they aren’t capable of certain tasks. Helping your child build perseverance and endurance when faced with a challenge is immeasurably important.

6. Explain the reason why. Asking, “why?” is the loud and clear vocalization of a growing brain. Don’t silence it. Engage that curiosity–not by having all the answers, but by encouraging those questions and trying to start a conversation.

7. Don’t say, “Good job!” Yes, our children impress us. That is a beautiful thing. But rather than fill up the fairly narrow vessel of joy that is tied to receiving praise, build self-pride and self-love by emphasizing hard work. When you immediately compliment what your child does you are placing judgment, and the task seems to be about pleasing you. When you recognize the hard work your child did, or ask him how he feels about his product, you are helping him see and praise himself.

8. Emphasize universal values. The world can be a very confusing place for children, and a sense of predictability and boundaries can make it feel much safer. Talk about simple concepts like making someone feel happy versus sad, gentle touch versus rough touch, inside voices and outside voices. Try to emphasize the behaviors that will help in almost all situations, not just specific rules that are only followed at home, when grandma is around, etc.

9. Give time for doing nothing. Children don’t always benefit from more. Lots of classes and activities can indeed mean lots of learning experiences, but without enough time for processing and reflecting on those experiences, they won’t be retained mentally. Children need lots of down time and plenty of SLEEP!

10. Take care of your brain! What you do is always more influential than what you say. If you cultivate a lifestyle that helps your brain work best, it will be much easier for your children to do so. Do you get affection, spend time outside, eat good food, challenge yourself, and take plenty of down time? Helping yourself be better is always a step toward helping your children be better.

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