Ask I-LABS Outreach: How can I make my child exceptionally smart?

The question comes in different forms. Parents ask, "What can I do to make sure my child is successful later in life?," "How can I help my toddler be ready to enter kindergarten?," and even "I want my child to be gifted—what can I do to ensure that?"

In this inaugural installment of a new series "Ask I-LABS Outreach," we'll take on one of the most frequently asked questions from the parents we meet: how I can make my child smart?

While there are no guarantees, the I-LABS Outreach team's go-to answer encourages parents to make the most of everyday interactions. Playing at the park, eating (and preparing) meals with family, reading with caregivers, and even trips to the grocery store are all opportunities to learn and foster brain development.

Early experiences—especially those that involve high-quality interactions with supportive caregivers—are the building blocks for future success.

Here are some science-based approaches to provide enriching early experiences for young children:

Children Learn Best From Other People

We often hear that children think parents are the best toys in the room, and it’s true! Science shows that children learn best from high-quality interactions with other people. For example, young infants only learn the sounds of language by playing with a live person. They do not learn by watching a video or listening to language sounds on a CD (read research study).

Face-to-Face Interactions

In a face-to-face interaction, adults can respond to a child’s needs and interests in the moment. They can create a back-and-forth exchange long before a child understands real words.

Imagine an infant who looks at an object, then into their caregiver’s eyes, and then back at the object. The caregiver can notice the infant’s interest and point at the object. They can also look into the infant’s eyes, and then name and describe the object.

For example, the caregiver might say, “Yes, that’s a bottle. Would you like some milk? I know how much you love milk!” In this interaction, the infant learns by observing the caregiver’s eye-gaze, pointing, and gesturing. This is how a caregiver and an infant build a connection before real conversations begin.

Infant-Directed Speech

The speaking style caregivers use also helps children learn. Both the number of words that children hear and the type of language are important. Youngest children learn best when they listen to infant-directed speech, or “parentese.”

It sounds like a sing-song, or exaggerated tone of voice. Babies love to listen to it! The more babies hear parentese, the more babies babble and then later, when they are toddlers, the more words they know (read more about the discovery).

Caregivers can also build language in other ways. For example, they can talk a lot and in a playful way. They can also use new and different words, or share important information. Another good strategy is to offer choices and ask many questions.

Imitation Isn't Just a Form of Flattery

One important way in which children learn from other people is imitation, or copying. This is how children learn about objects, people, and rules. Even newborns will copy an adult who sticks out their tongue at them (read research study). Children especially love to copy the actions of adults that they know, love and trust.

Social and Emotional Development

Remember that being "smart" isn't just about cognitive prowess. And school readiness is more than learning the colors and letters of the alphabet. Social-emotional development is essential for school too.

Young children build that through their relationships with supportive caregivers. It's these important people who help determine how a child later makes friends, talks about feelings, and communicates with others.

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About the Author:
Sarah Roseberry Lytle, Ph.D.
Lytle is the Director of Outreach and Education at I-LABS. She has B.A. in psychology and Spanish from the University of Notre Dame and a Ph.D. in developmental psychology from Temple University, where she studied how young children learn language from screen media.

About "Ask I-LABS Outreach:" This is an occasional series based on discussions the I-LABS Outreach team has with parents, caregivers, educators, and others interested in the science of early learning and how it applies to everyday interactions with children. Suggest a topic by emailing ilabsout@uw.edu.

Follow the series on the I-LABS news page, Facebook or Twitter pages. Or, sign up for the quarterly Outreach newsletter by emailing ilabsout@uw.edu.