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Health

5 Ways to Make Your Grandkids Smarter

Give your favorite kids a head start with these smart strategies


(This article previously appeared on Grandparents.)

What they say is true: A good education starts at home. And if you’re a grandparent, you can play a vital role in your grandchild’s brain development. Employ these smart strategies to put him or her on a path to success:

1. Use Your Words

Language skills are crucial to your grandbaby’s cognitive growth, and good predictors of her future success in school. One Stanford study found toddlers who quickly recognized familiar words at 18 months had comparatively large vocabularies at 24 months, and performed better on tests in kindergarten. Since most brain development occurs before age three, it pays to nurture communication as early as possible. Research shows the more words little kids hear, the better off they are.

It’s estimated that kids see 40,000 commercials per year, and sit in front of televisions, tablets and smartphones about seven hours per day.

What grandparents can do:

  • Talk. A lot. Start early with baby talk, which catches babies’ attention and stimulates babble. Narrate your actions, too; instead of simply changing an infant’s onesie, describe its color, texture and designs. As kids grow older, ask questions and look for responses.
  • Read. Reading increases the number and range of words children hear — especially terms outside of routine conversation. For the best results, don’t just recite a book; discuss the story as you’re reading and ask questions as you go along.
  • Sing and dance. Music and movement stimulate baby brains. Lyrics widen their vocabularies and introduce rhyming. Plus, it’s fun!

2. Back Off

Studies show coddled, overprotected boys and girls have more problems with bullying, problem-solving, depression, obesity and anxiety, among other issues, simply because they’ve never been taught to handle certain situations by themselves. To help raise capable, resilient grandkids, you must give them the freedom to play, explore and fail on their own. It’s hard, sure, especially when it’s a question of physical safety. But letting your grandkids take risks in school, on the playground and with relationships — and deal with the consequences — is far better for them than any amount of well-meaning hovering.

What grandparents can do:

  • Avoid intervening. Whether it’s a toddler sandbox rumble or difficulty with junior high math homework, allow your grandchild to solve problems on his own; he learns nothing if you swoop in to handle them.
  • Encourage risk-taking and self-reliance. Let her climb the tree. Champion his audition for the play. Urge them to explore the neighborhood. Resist the compulsion to supervise. (Note that risks are different than hazards, which present immediate physical danger.)
  • Discuss failures. Listen to kids talk about disappointments, without judgment. Support their honest efforts and prod them to try again.

3. Adjust Your Screens

It’s estimated that kids see 40,000 commercials per year, and sit in front of televisions, tablets and smartphones about seven hours per day. For developing minds, this is a problem, since excessive screen time takes away from crucial face-to-face interaction. What’s more, too much media use can actually do harm. For example, kids with TVs in their bedrooms — who watch 90 minutes more television daily — have lower test scores, more behavioral problems and are likelier to be overweight.

What grandparents can do:

  • Discuss media. Some screen use is inevitable, so make sure it’s not a passive experience. Ask questions about what kids see, and use answers as jump-off points for bigger discussions.
  • Help choose good content. Avoid media that’s overtly violent, sexual or selling something. Read reviews to find smart, engrossing, motivational games and shows.
  • Model good non-screen behavior. Connect with grandkids in ways that don’t involve electronics; go for a walk, bake cookies, read together and let them see you reading alone. Don’t check your phone at meals. Turn off the TV, even in the background, since it inhibits conversation.

4. Keep Playtime Simple

It’s no secret to grandparents who grew up playing with blocks and dolls; the best toys, cognitively speaking, are the simplest ones — toys that spark creativity, build motor skills and encourage experimentation. In fact, multiple studies have found that electronic toys and “smart baby technology” can actually hinder development, since they discourage interaction with real people.

Good things can be said for free playtime, as well. The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends 60 minutes of unstructured play daily; it stimulates every part of a kid’s brain and allows children free reign to discover, imagine and connect.

What grandparents can do:

  • Give uncomplicated gifts. Resist splurging on lights and beeps. Instead, focus on books, art supplies, instruments, blocks, dolls — toys that inspire engagement and imagination.
  • Get outdoors. Studies show that grandkids who spend more time outside play more creatively, concentrate better and get more exercise than those who don’t.
  • Don’t schedule anything during your time together. Let the day take you where it might. The thrill of discovery will do wonders for their brain, and for your relationship.

5. Address Delays Early

One of every six children will experience a developmental delay, from autism spectrum disorders to cerebral palsy and beyond. The sooner that delay is recognized and dealt with, the better off your grandbaby will be. Receiving services before age three is especially important, and intervention before 12 months is ideal; many children aren’t even diagnosed until they head to school.

What grandparents can do:

  • If you see something, say something. Don’t wait if you suspect an issue. Use milestone development checklists from places like Easter Seals to broach the subject as objectively as possible with parents.
  • Support your grandchild and grandchild’s parents. Developmental delays can be tough to navigate, and your family will need emotional encouragement and practical help.

Be there for them, and never stop cheering them on.

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