Brain-Boosting Activities for Your Preschooler

How activities such as playing, reading, and learning languages stimulate your preschooler's mind.

Medically Reviewed by Laura J. Martin, MD on October 07, 2010
5 min read

There’s no way to guarantee your preschooler is going to be a little Einstein. But certain activities for kids aged 3 to 5 are more likely to give their brains an early jump start and put them ahead of the game.

Up until age 2, babies’ and toddlers’ brains are growing by leaps and bounds every day. They develop language and motor skills faster than they ever will.

But between 3 to 5 years, that growth slows. Instead the brain is making countless connections within its different regions.

Preschoolers focus more on absorbing the world around them. Their minds are developing problem-solving skills and using language to negotiate. They’re also learning how to coordinate their bodies to do things like aim and kick a ball.

“Kids should be out there exploring and getting ready for their next important job: going to school,” says developmental pediatrician Michele Macias, MD, spokeswoman for the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) and chairwoman of the AAP's section on developmental and behavioral pediatrics.

The No. 1 brain booster for preschoolers is one-on-one time with parents, Macias tells WebMD.

Even though this is a time to learn independence, the parent-child attachment is still there at this age. “The simple exchange of language and ideas is a much more important brain builder than putting your child in a million different activities,” says Macias, a pediatrics professor at the Medical University of South Carolina.

Not only is it a great way to get quality “face time” with your child, reading together is critical to boosting brain power.

Studies show that hitting the books with your preschooler improves early literacy. It helps kids sharpen language and vocabulary, and sparks discussions with the parent that promote a better understanding, says child psychologist Richard Gallagher, PhD.

Books that tell a story and ones that teach counting, ABC’s, sorting and matching, and similar core concepts are perfect for this age, says Gallagher, who is an associate professor of child and adolescent psychiatry at New York University’s Child Study Center.

Preschool-aged children naturally have great imaginations. Though they often start pretend play at younger ages, their imagination life really starts to take hold from age 3-5. They start to play cowboys, pretend they're superheroes or princesses, and start playing dress-up, Macias says.

Besides being fun, imaginative play lets kids experiment with role playing. “Much like reading, make-believe lets kids practice things they might not actually be able to experience in real life,” Gallagher says.

For instance, when your preschooler smashes one toy car into another and then sends their toy ambulance in to the rescue, or sends their helicopter to rescue their stuffed animal off the cliff that you call a kitchen countertop, they're absorbing and rehearsing crisis management in a very safe setting.

Imaginative play also helps language skills, because it involves thinking about things in words and repeating what they hear.

Learning the rules of play by spending time with friends helps improve social smarts. Practice with self-control, sharing, and negotiating all build the relationship skills kids will need in the future, Macias says.

“A child who doesn’t develop well socially could be the most brilliant person in the world in terms of IQ, but their poor social skills can make them less successful in terms of health, school outcomes, and even jobs,” Macias says.

Being social with other kids also helps preschoolers form handy stereotypes. They learn things like what younger or older kids are like, and that boys and girls act differently, Gallagher tells WebMD. “That helps them make a mental map for future reference,” he says.

From Candy Land to “Duck, Duck, Goose”, games with rules help improve social intelligence. Kids practice patience in taking turns, and learn to accept the frustration of not winning. Remembering rules also gives those memory muscles a workout. Physical games help sharpen the brain’s motor coordination.

Stick to games with three or four simple rules, and shorter games that can be played again quickly.

Working puzzles promotes nonverbal reasoning and the ability to visualize. The brain’s fine motor coordination area gets a jolt as little fingers learn to fit the pieces. And puzzles can help more energetic kids spend some quiet time on their own while still stimulating their minds.

Research shows that younger kids can pick up multiple languages much faster than when they get older. Learning a second tongue early on also gives a double punch of stimulation to the areas of the brain responsible for storing, sequencing, and saying words, Gallagher says.

A second language also helps with developing verbal and spatial abilities, and promotes better vocabulary and reading skills. An added perk: Kids get a greater sense of cultural diversity.

Wondering if that alphabet computer game your 4-year old plays or those educational videos they watch actually help? Here’s what experts tell WebMD.

Yes, educational electronic games, videos, and certain educational TV programs might benefit your preschooler, but with several qualifiers.

First, your child needs to be engaged in a back-and-forth interaction in order to really get a benefit, not just sitting there. Parents should carefully choose high-quality programs and be with the child when they are watching or playing. Your job is to guide and reinforce what’s being shown.

Limit your preschooler's total amount of screen time to no more than one or two hours daily, according to the American Academy of Pediatrics. That includes time with TV, computers, game consoles, and anything else with a screen. Keep the TV and other gadgets out of their bedrooms.

Sports classes are great for providing some structure, creating a social setting, and building important motor skills and balance. Similarly, music and art courses can improve a preschooler’s artistic or musical intelligence. However, there’s no strong evidence that taking these classes will turn Junior into a super-genius, Gallagher says.

As for those programs that claim to raise your child’s IQ or have him reading by age 3: Very few studies support those claims, Macias says. “Sure, your preschooler might be reading words, but there’s no proof they translate into comprehension. The brain has to be mature enough for it,” Macias says. She suggests that reading books together is just as good at priming a young mind for active reading.

Remember the value of unstructured (free) play. Be involved in their playtime. But don’t try to control too much of it or they can lose some of its benefits -- especially in developing creativity, leadership, and group skills.

It’s important not to overload kids with too many activities or classes. “It could backfire, cause them to get tired or frustrated,” Macias says.

Whatever activities you choose, make sure it’s fun for your child. Go easy on the pressure. And above all, just let your kid enjoy the sheer pleasure of being a kid.