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Ask an Expert: Stimulating kids’ brains

Learn more about EdNews Parent expert Steve Sarche.


Just because it’s summer does not mean your child should stop using his or her brain. Summertime is actually a good time to hone certain skills that can improve intelligence.  One of the most important aspects of learning, if not the “sine qua non of learning” (as Newsweek called it, Jan. 9, 2012), is attention.

If you think about that, it makes sense: If you are not paying attention to something, you cannot learn it.  The classic example would be forgetting a person’s name two seconds after meeting said person at a cocktail party.  Then you have to somehow figure out the name without completely embarrassing yourself. It can be very awkward calling a person you just met “buddy” or “dude.”

The trick is improving your attention span.  There are many ways to do this, but I will focus on three.

Improving your attention span

  • The first is to decrease the amount of screen time every day. This includes limiting time spent playing video games, watching television and texting. Research shows that all of these things may decrease a person’s attention. Fewer than 14 hours per week of screen time is ideal.
  • Second is exercise. Regular exercise, four to five times per week with a heart rate elevated to at least 60 percent of maximum estimated heart rate (calculated as 220 minus your age), helps with focus.  A bonus with that is it also has been shown to help with a general sense of well-being, and less depression.  There are many ways to get exercise.  The key is to find something that you and your child enjoy.
  • Third, exercise the brain itself.  Like a muscle, the less the brain is used, the less powerful it becomes.  Activities that require good focus include those that require both cognitive and motor skills, such as learning to play a musical instrument, riding a horse or playing a sport.  Other ways to exercise the brain include learning a second language, eating a healthy diet of mostly fruits and vegetables and limiting sugar and processed foods, and becoming an expert in something.  Help your child find a passion such as chess, art or cars and nurture them in learning about it.

Granted, it can be a challenge to get a child to start into the aforementioned good habits. It often truly takes a village to raise a child and that may mean the parents have to change their habits as well. Unplug the internet or television if you have to, start your own exercise routine, work on improving your diet.

You can plan more activities that require the use of the brain, such as a trip to the museum or a science project that requires teamwork.  Understand that when you introduce new ways of doing things, your child may rebel or push back. I would urge you to work through that, and keep your resolve.

What did you just read?

Now, quickly and without looking: What was the name of the magazine I referred to in the first paragraph?  Maybe we can all use some work on our attention skills. Just imagine, you may never have to nudge your friend, discreetly point at a person you just met and ask, “What is that person’s name again?”

About our First Person series:

First Person is where Chalkbeat features personal essays by educators, students, parents, and others trying to improve public education. Read our submission guidelines here.