Two months ago, I decided to do an experiment with my four-year-old son.
Every weekday after dinner, I spent three to five minutes teaching him sight words. (Sight words are commonly used words – like “the” – that kids can recognize by sight.)
After two months of doing this simple routine – and only doing it about 65 percent of the time – my son now knows 32 sight words. Better than that, our reading time together has been supercharged because he can read some of the words along with me. It’s awesome.
My son didn’t learn those words because he is a genius; he’s not. He didn’t learn those words because we’re super parents; we’re most definitely not.
My son learned those words because we instigated a simple daily habit and stuck with it. That’s because simple daily habits produce incredible results over time. Just the other day, I read a 2017 study that showed how climbing stairs for 10 minutes a day can increase “VO2 max” (a common measure of respiratory fitness) by 12 percent.
Ten minutes a day.
If you want to embrace the power of simple daily habits to benefit your child’s brain development, here’s what you need to do, according to science:
Let them run
A 2014 study by researchers at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign showed that eight- to nine-year-olds assigned to an after school exercise program (e.g., playing tag) increased their cognitive test scores in a number of markers more than the non-exercisers.
The exercisers were also better able to block out irrelevant information (“attentional inhibition”) and concentrate on the task at hand. They found it easier to toggle between cognitive tasks and were generally in better physical health.
Make sure they get enough sleep
Children and sleep are like vinegar and oil. Any parent that has had to deal with a hard sleeper knows what I’m talking about. But research shows us that fighting the good fight – that is, making our kids sleep – is totally worth it.
A child that gets enough sleep is less likely to: 1) exhibit ADHD symptoms, 2) become obese, 3) use drugs and alcohol as a teenager, and will avoid a whole slew of other negative effects that their sleep-deprived peers will be more likely to struggle with. Not only that, research has shown that a child who naps is better able to retain new information and problem solve.
Feed them right
Getting our kids to eat healthy is hard (broccoli, anyone?). But, according to research, it’s also worth it. According to data from the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey, most kids do not get enough vitamin D and vitamin E. In addition, almost 25 percent of kids do not get enough calcium.
Vitamin D deficiencies have been linked to all sorts of bad stuff (like cancer). Your child can get Vitamin D from being in the sun and by eating fatty fish, mushrooms, and Vitamin D fortified milk. Vitamin E is key for strong immunity and healthy skin and eyes. It is found in nuts and green leafy vegetables. Calcium plays a crucial role in bone health and also helps maintain heart rhythm, muscle function, and more. Your kids can get calcium from eating dairy products, kale, and broccoli.
Read to them
Everyone knows that reading out loud to children is good for them. According to the American Academy of Pediatrics, “Children who are read to during infancy and preschool years have better language skills when they start school and are more interested in reading.”
However, a 2015 study published in the journal “Pediatrics” showed that children who were read to more frequently at an early age had an increased response in those language processing parts of the brain than those who were read to less frequently. In other words, reading to kids – even when they don’t understand it – helps develop the language processing parts of their brain.
Give them an instrument
Practicing an instrument increases brain matter and helps stave off the effect of aging on the brain. Specifically, a 2003 study by a Harvard neurologist showed that adult professional musicians had higher levels of gray matter volume in the motor, auditory, and visual-spatial regions of their brain as compared to non-musicians.
A 2012 study showed that elderly adults who had learned an instrument before the age of nine and studied it for at least 10 years outperformed non-musicians in tests on verbal working memory, verbal memory, verbal fluency, visuospatial, and planning functions.
The above habits may not happen every single day. It isn’t realistic. But, like the sight word experiment with my son, even doing something right 65 percent of the time pays major dividends for your child.