Some of us may find it taboo to admit; others are more open about our ambitions when it comes to our children. There’s nothing wrong with wanting our kids to grow up a little cleverer than all the rest. But what exactly is smart? And how do we assess this in the modern child?

“We usually associate ‘smart’ with intelligence and good performance at school,” says Dr Valeria Risoli, a clinical psychologist at Dubai Physiotherapy and Family Medicine Clinic. “But it means much more.”

Smart has evolved, many experts agree, to reach beyond the results of standardised tests. It is more than book smart. Today’s smart child is emotionally intelligent, practical, resourceful and inventive.

Thinking beyond the box

Music lessons? Check. Painting classes? Sorted. Tennis? Bought the racket. There’s nothing wrong with extra lessons to boost your child’s overall health and wellbeing. But you may be missing a vital brain-boosting trick here. Increasingly, STEM-based lessons (Stem stands for Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths) show amazing success in engaging children.

Perhaps one of the most original concepts in learning is right here in the UAE. The Curiosity Machine is an after-school programme run by Boeing, the Abu Dhabi Education Council and Mubadala. Here, children learn about aerospace and engineering using everyday items like paperclips, ice cream sticks and rubber bands.

As well as STEM-based knowledge, it's important that kids are learning through both traditional and non-traditional methods. Exposure to science at an early age helps children cement their skills, which teaches them to focus beyond mere reading and writing to more well-rounded comprehension that will continue into their adult years, says Pam Garza, project director of Stems for Youth in the US. 

Encourage originality

Nonconformists move the world, says author Adam Grant. His book Originals is devoted to this notion. One of the key points he believes in is that children should be taught in ‘conditionals’ not absolutes.
In an interview with NPR (National Public Radio) in the US, he explained, “Instead of saying, ‘This is a book,’ you teach them that this could be a book. And then they’re more likely to ask questions about the things that they say as opposed to assuming that there’s one right answer. We could do a lot more encouraging kids to ask questions about multiple possibilities as opposed to searching for the one correct answer.”

So how does conditional learning make your child smarter? Think of it this way: you can raise your child to play the piano – amazing in its own right. Or, you can raise a child who can compose his own musical score. Encouraging your children to feel good in their abilities (and hence, uniqueness) is a great idea, says Dr Risoli. “It helps them feel motivated but it’s important to be smart about how you praise.

“It is effective to praise children for their effort and work [rather than their achievements]. This motivates them to try things that are challenging, reduce the anxiety of performing well, and improve their self-esteem.”

Go left

Building on the idea of raising an original thinker, American entrepreneur Cameron Herold spoke earlier this year about moving beyond textbook education to embrace inherent talents and skills. “We get told that we need to study harder or be more focused or get a tutor. My parents got me a tutor in French and I still suck at French. Yet, when I was in Grade 2, I won a speaking contest but nobody ever said, ‘Hey, this kid’s a good speaker, he can’t focus but he loves walking around and getting people energised.”

So, your child may not be the best at spelling, and maybe he never will be. But he may have an under-appreciated skill that is equally representative of his intelligence. “Be positive about these differences,” says Dr Risoli. “Embracing dissimilarity is essential to improve his self-esteem; a basic element that has an enormous effect on his success and growth.” 

‘Do as I do’

The theory of observational learning, where children discern their role-models and imitate them, is largely the brainchild of eminent psychologist Albert Bandura. The idea is simple, if you do “smart” things, for example, reading or learning a new language, your child will do the same. Observational learning is said to be particularly important during childhood – a stage when we are quick to mimic behaviour.

Let go of expectations

Do not treat your children as little “projects”, advises Dr Risoli. “A good score on a test is not really predictive of the success of that child. Understand his cognitive profile but realise that it is also just a number, and it need not define his entire future. As parents we must be careful to not define children upon a score, and rather better understand what makes kids grow smarter.”

Get them moving

Exercise can make your child smarter! The theory has been around for ages and there are studies and research to validate the claims. Most notably, a 2010 study by the National Institutes of Health in the US specifically showed that when children exercise consistently, their brains ‘bulk up’. In this particular study, brain scans after exercise showed that the fitter kids had significantly larger basal ganglia of the brain, which helps maintain attention and coordinate thoughts and actions effectively. 

Keep learning

Real learning is not passive – children need to be constantly actively stimulated. “Do babies learn from baby media?” was the question posed by one study whose results were published in Psychological Science (2010).

The answer was ‘no’, as the study explained: “The most important result was that children who viewed a DVD did not learn any more words from their month-long exposure to it than did a control group. The highest level of learning occurred in a no-video condition in which parents tried to teach their children the same target words during everyday activities.” So making learning part of daily life, including during other regular routines, can be much more effective.

Three things for under fours  

Broaden their minds with these baby- and toddler-friendly tools

  • Lamsa is a free app that aims to make the Arabic language fun and interesting for children aged one to eight. Vibrant, user-friendly and interactive, it encourages both active engagement and joint engagement with parents. Creator Badr Ward said in an interview, “These are the years that shape a child’s personality and install habits such as reading and curiosity. We are raising future citizens, so this isn’t just about learning colours and letters.”
  • Your child’s emotional IQ can be developed with The Moodsters, a quirky game for ages three plus that focuses on feelings. Created by US parenting expert Denise Daniels, in collaboration with Yale University, the game uses research about emotional intelligence, realised in game form. The Moodsters are a team of detectives who help children navigate their moods, feelings and emotions through books, toys and colouring downloads.
  • Think your toddler isn’t ready for coding? Think again! Cubetto is a friendly robot that will teach pre-readers the basics of computer programming through adventure and hands on play. Made of tactile and hard-wearing wood and without a screen, Cubetto uses blocks your child can touch and move as a ‘coding language’ to create instructions for the robot to follow. The toy encourages problem solving and is Montessori approved, preparing little ones for a future where tech skills will be invaluable. (Shipping to the UAE available.) 

Read more: 

8 ideas for play that will boost your child's creativity 

What you need to know about Forest Schooling in the UAE

5 things parents of kind children have in common

Photos by Shutterstock 

This article was originally published in Aquarius magazine