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Can You Boost Your Child’s IQ?

What makes kids smart may surprise you

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Connecting with you helps a child's brain develop, Thompson says, because neurons get connected through social connection and language. Learning is also often motivated by close relationships. "Kids become interested in learning because learning is valuable to the people who matter," he says.

By contrast, when children don't feel safe and secure, their ability to learn is affected.

The amygdala is a part of the brain that regulates emotion. When children feel threatened, the amygdala creates a fight-or-flight response -- a chain reaction that allows emotion to overrule rational thought by "shutting down" the thinking parts of the brain. Early or long-term stress in a child's life can lead to changes in this part of the brain, making that child more susceptible to stress and less susceptible to learning. But close, loving relationships can protect against this.

Experience sculpts the brain

"The brain is the only organ in the body that sculpts itself through experience," Wolfe says. We now know that experiences actually change and reorganize the brain's structure and physiology.

Instead of seeing a child's intelligence as a dynamic process, parents too often think of the brain as a vessel that can be simply filled up with knowledge, Thompson says. But that's not the way it works, especially for young children.

"The best learning occurs through active engagement," he says. "A child is thrilled to be counting peas in the context of gardening, measuring ingredients in the context of working with a recipe, or sorting nails in the context of building a birdhouse."

Wolfe agrees, saying a variety of learning experiences in the real world are good for a child's intelligence. Even at the grocery store, children can learn a lot by weighing foods, reading labels, and counting change.

Although eliminating TV and video games may not be entirely realistic, Wolfe says that too much time with media like these puts children in a receptive mode. And that keeps them from a rich, natural interaction with the real world, which is so important for a child's brain development.

Your Child's IQ: Do you need fancy toys?

At the UC Davis Center for Mind and Brain, psychology professor and infant cognition specialist Lisa Oakes studies another aspect of childhood intelligence. She examines how infants categorize and make sense of the visual world --research that makes her question the push by parents to boost a child's IQ with fancy toys.

"We know that stimulation is good for the development of the brain," Oakes says. You probably know that infants need different colors and textures and experiences. "But it doesn't all need to come in one toy," she says.

From her research, she has learned that infants are more interested in the action of a toy than the outcome it produces. So babies do not need expensive gadgets with lots of "bells and whistles" to learn. But if a certain toy is fun for a parent, it may still have a benefit, she says. That's because babies learn through their parents' reactions too.

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