Critical Thinking

13 Tips To Raise a Smart Kid

13 research & experience based tips to raise a smart child including importance of spatial ability, open ended activity, communication methods, reading to your child and more...


Children have SO much potential. Many of us parents try to provide the best opportunities for our child, hoping it will lead to a bright future. The amount of information out there on bringing the best out of your child is overwhelming. In this article, I am consolidating the best of what I have found, all backed up by research. Enjoy :)

1. Start building spatial ability as soon as the child is born

There are certain people we think of when we think of a smart person - Einstein, Faraday and Tesla to name a few. All of them have indicated that their spatial abilities were an essential part of their creative discoveries and advancements. It is important in positive human development and creates a lifelong learner who will eventually be able to contribute and be at the forefront of advancing society.

This process starts early and continues building on itself. In fact, it can start as soon as your child is born. For example, when a baby reaches for their toy, they are trying to learn distance and how their body moves in relation to 3 dimensional objects. She knows the object is there somewhere in front of her, she’s just trying to figure out how to adjust her body to reach it. Studies show that preschoolers who are better at visualising spatial relationships are better at math in primary school. Some practical tips include:

  • Giving your child the freedom to explore
  • Playing hide and seek
  • Filling and emptying objects
  • Playing spatial sports, such as soccer, gymnastics and baseball
  • Stacking different objects and rearranging them  

2. Expose children to diverse experiences

A lot of who we become as adults stems from our childhood experiences. Young children don’t always seem to retain everything we expose them to, but studies show that exposing your child to a larger variety of experiences allows for positive learning outcomes as well as developing more meaningful life goals in the future.

We are essentially opening up their minds to what the world really is and meeting their needs to explore, experiment and inquire. This also opens up the opportunity to talk about different things with your child and broaden their interests and awareness. Some practical tips include taking your child to:

  • Construction sites
  • Car plants
  • Fire stations
  • Nature walks
  • Light festivals
  • 3D art galleries.

3. Help children develop a growth mindset by praising effort, not ability

Since the 70s, there has been a push for parents to praise children to build their self-esteem. We end up responding to everything with praise - when the child pours water without spilling, draws a picture, throws a ball.. you name it, we praise it. However, many studies show that children who receive praise about their ability (ie ‘What a beautiful tower!’) tend to show a more hopeless response to failure. The child concludes that their failure was related to not being smart enough.

On the other hand, children who received what is known as ‘process praise’ (ie ‘You built that tower really carefully!’) were shown to confront their weaknesses, develop a flexible mindset and focus on strategies to solve their problem. Some phrases we can learn to incorporate are:

  • ‘Thank you for helping me clean up. I love how you helped me line up all the shoes. This will help us when we need to leave.’
  • ‘I see you drew with many different colors. You seem really proud of yourself!’
  • ‘I saw you helped the little boy who fell. I think you helped him feel better when you drew something for him. That's what I call building empathy!’

4. Read to your child at least twice a day

Reading to your child builds the foundation for reading independently. Reading problems become challenging to overcome for both students and teachers in the elementary years, but a lot of these issues can be prevented if reading starts in the toddler/preschool years, and even earlier.

Experts suggest that you should read to your child as regularly and often as possible, such as before naps and bedtimes. This not only builds your child’s vocabulary, but is also a great way to build a connection between you and your child. Some practical tips include:

  • Read expressively, changing your voice as appropriate for different characters in the book  
  • Any book your toddler chooses is ok, even if the same book is read over and over again for weeks on end :)
  • Asking open ended questions such as, ‘What do you think will happen next?’ or ‘Why do you think this person feels happy?’

5. Allow children to solve their own problems

Just like how a child will not learn to walk if they are always carried. Allowing them to solve their own problems will give them the skills they need to to get through life without constant guidance. These are skills which build on each other.

If a child doesn’t learn how to solve 1 year old problems, they will find it really challenging to solve 2 year old problems. Along with building their confidence and self-esteem, it will also help them become fluid and flexible thinkers. Fluent thinkers are able to come up with ideas and flexible thinkers are able to see many possibilities to solve a problem and view the situation in different ways. Some practical tips include:

  • Asking your child open-ended questions like ‘How many different ways can we build these blocks?’ or, ‘What are some things we can use from around the house to help us build a tower?’
  • Provide lots of time every day for free play - this allows the child to choose things to do based on their interest and developmental level, giving them the chance to solve problems.
  • Reinforce the child’s solution - this lets the child know that their efforts and ideas are valued
  • Step back and watch - sometimes it is very tempting for us parents to step in right away, but that sends them the subtle message that we don’t feel confident in them being able to solve the problem themselves

6. Lead by modelling the type of behaviour you want your child to display

Children need to see what good behaviour looks like so they know how to emulate it. Often times, they look at our behaviour as parents and use that as a guidepost for what is right and wrong,

“Be inviters to people by means other than your tongue, so that people see piety, diligence, prayer and goodness from you, for this is the correct way to invite.” - Imam al-Sadiq(a).

Modelling is also important so children can learn how to self-regulate their emotions. This then helps develop skills such as attentiveness, co-operation and persistence. What are some practical tips?

  • Become more aware of your own behaviour, habits and language you use in front of your children
  • Reading books to your child which demonstrates positive behaviour
  • Limit exposure to negative behaviours such as violence, inappropriate language, cheating etc. be it from the television, family/friends, books etc. These can become the models that children follow

7. Don't allow screen time for kids under two years of age

It’s no secret that kids are spending more and more time on screens. Experts suggest that screens should only be used for video chatting to family for children under 2 years old. Why? Because their brain is  rapidly developing at the time. Screens can inhibit certain aspects of their development and also limit their other means of exploring and learning. They are addictive for all of us, including kids. If a child is spending most of their time in the digital world, it becomes increasingly difficult to engage them in non-electronic activities such as playing outside, playing with other children, working through problems which is all incredibly important to their development. Some practical tips include:

  • Only using screens for video chatting for children under two
  • For children ages 2-5 screen time should be limited to 1 hr per day and they should only be shown high quality programs.
  • Honestly, the best practical tip is not having a TV at home. We’ve done it and it's one of the best family practices we have. There is no temptation to watch something you don’t have and it increases the quality of family time we spend together. TV is not the same now as it was when we were growing up. There is far too much ‘mature’ content on children’s TV shows and subtle messaging which children don’t need to be exposed to.

8.  Developing connection with the child and making them feel loved through giving quality time regularly

When your child is feeling safe, connected and protected, it allows for communication between all the rest of the parts of their brain. It opens into the reasoning centre of their brain and allows the prefrontal cortex to work. When your child feels connected, he/she is a learner.

How does this work? Any type of threat, frustration or any other strong emotion causes the child to lose their connection and ability to think. The younger the child is, the faster that connection will break. This typically demonstrates itself by ‘off-track’ behaviour such as hitting, whining, tantrums etc. While this looks ‘off-track’, what the child is actually trying to do is connect with you again. By connecting with them you are essentially cleaning their brain and helping them think again. Tips to connect with your child include:

  • Giving your child a bit of undivided attention, free from checking messages, multitasking etc.
  • Playing with your child as if you were a child, pretending like they are the more capable and stronger one in the game
  • Listening to  them through their upsets. If your child knows you are there for them, not only in the good times but the bad as well, imagine what it would do for your relationship in the future

9. Develop self-discipline from a young age through providing structure and consistency

One of the strongest predictors of academic success is how much self discipline one has. Interestingly enough, studies show that kids who had more self discipline had better grades, better school attendance and more likely to be admitted into more competitive programs. Not only that, but it also correlated with higher self esteem and better relationship skills.  

Of course, self discipline for a toddler will look very different for self discipline of a child in elementary and even more different for a teenager. However, it is something which when the seeds are planted early, when the child  will reap its benefits for the rest of their life.Tips to help your child develop self discipline include:

  • Providing structure so children know what to expect and are less tempted to be distracted
  • Playing the ‘freeze’ game. Kids can move for as long as something is playing in the background and have to freeze as soon as it stops. Studies show this is particularly effective in building self discipline in preschoolers.
  • Modelling self discipline - Kids will very quickly pick up on your level of self-discipline and the consistency of it. It will serve as a benchmark for their level of self-discipline too.

10. Ensure your child has as much time for free-play as possible

Developmentally appropriate play helps a child build cognitive, socio-emotional, language and self-regulation skills. It is the way children learn. It develops brain structure and solidifies the process of learning. This helps us to pursue goals later on in life and avoid distractions. What does this look like for a child? Play is something which comes from within and doesn’t have any extrinsic goals.

It's fun, spontaneous and we usually see kids really engrossed in their play.  Also, outdoor play provides different opportunities for the child and allows them to develop a different set of skills compared to indoor play, both of which are important. Children have much more freedom to develop their gross motor skills, understand and connect different aspects of their learning(ie if they learned about birds, they can practically apply that knowledge by looking for those birds) and also fulfils their need for free play.  Practical tips include:

  • Allow for lots for unstructured play time - let your child take the lead and follow their curiosity
  • Give children the opportunity to play with other kids - they learn from each other and build social skills
  • Mix up the different types of play: toy/object play, physical play (ie on playgrounds), outdoor play (ie nature hikes) and pretend play

11. Talk to your toddler with rich vocabulary

One of the keys to early learning for a child is their exposure to spoken language from birth to age 3 - the more the better. Studies show that the higher the number of words a child hears from their parent before the age of 3, the higher their IQ is and the better they did at school. They also show that this language can’t be acquired from watching TV, and in fact is detrimental to their development. So what should you talk to your child about and how much is a good amount? Some practical tips include:

  • The richer the vocabulary you use with your child the better. This plays a huge part in the quality of language the child learns. They are smart and will pick up what you are telling them
  • Talk your child through everyday things you are doing. It doesn’t have to be anything fancy, just whatever it is you are doing. For example, if you are cooking and your child points to what you are doing, you can explain what you are cooking, what you’re putting inside it, why you are making it and how it is good for you
  • Avoid asking too many questions to your child to stimulate their talking. It’s not natural and they can feel the pressure. Rather you can model what the child is doing at that time. For example, when they choose a book, you can say, ‘This is a book. This book is called ‘Thomas the Tank Engine.’ Let’s read it together.’

12. Provide open-ended toys

When looking to buy a toy for your child, it can be really tempting  to buy the brightly coloured, complex functioning toys that can make different sounds and do lots of different things. However what does this do for your child’s brain? These types of toys often leave little for creativity and spontaneous play, which is an integral part of the child developing the ability to build resilience, ability to focus and the ability to problem solve. This leads to a competent and capable adult. Open ended play also allows the child to make choices and be creative. So what is an open-ended toy? Open ended toys don’t have any one specific way it is meant to be used. Examples include:

  • Blocks of different shapes and sizes
  • Magnetic tiles
  • Play dough/Kinetic sand
  • Art supplies like paint, felt pieces, paper, scissors and markers.

13. Don’t just blindly follow one method

There are SO many good methods to raise your child out there - Montessori, STEM and Waldorf to name a few. All of them have excellent components to it which can help your child succeed, but all have their own drawbacks. So why not combine what’s best from all of them rather than independently just following one method? I will be doing my research on the different methods and posting my findings on this blog so stay tuned :)


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