Want to boost children's cognitive development? Keep them alert
The Sector > Research > Want to boost children’s cognitive and emotional development? Keep them mentally active!

Want to boost children’s cognitive and emotional development? Keep them mentally active!

by Freya Lucas

March 11, 2024

The key to boosting a child’s cognitive and emotional development lies in promoting an active interest in topics or activities, Griffith University researchers have found.


Children’s early years, lead researcher Dr Christa van Aswegen from Griffith’s School of Education and Professional Studies said, are a highly sensitive period of development, and the perfect time to spark their curiosity and pique their interests, setting them up for lifelong interactions. 


The three year study explored the ways in which curiosity evolves into sustained interests and leads to a long term culture of learning by working with 57 children aged four to five years of age who were engaged in two-week-long enrichment programs for 15 separate topics, to gain insights on how young children develop interest in a topic.


The research found the initial spark of curiosity usually came from social interaction with a parent, guardian, grandparent, teacher, or friends, with these contacts providing an initial ‘hook’ by sharing something interesting with the child.


Educators are ideally positioned to provide this spark, for example, by pointing out different types of birds they see in the yard, or noticing the different sounds they make, sharing their names and colours. 


“There are two important parts to developing an authentic interest in a topic— knowledge and emotion,” Dr van Aswegen said.


“Knowledge means intentionally providing children with terminology and basic concepts that will allow them to share ideas and thoughts on specific topics, supporting cognitive development.


“Emotion prompts them to feel something for the subject matter, such as the birds in the earlier example, and by experiencing feelings of wonder, awe, compassion or simple joy and delight, children learn to care about the topic, increasing its value and their connection with it, which supports emotional development.”


Real-life experiences with caring adults and friends are essential, but the research also highlighted the value of diverse learning materials including images, stories, documentaries, art and music in furthering interest development.


It also found there was great value in promoting interest in a wide range of topics, with Dr van Aswegen emphasising the need for educators to focus on interest development in early years, as it provided many starting points for learning and a network of knowledge from which a child could navigate the world.


“While extrinsic motivation initially drives interest, children transition to intrinsic motivation as their curiosity deepens, leading them to independently seek answers and ask questions,” she said.


“The more interesting a topic becomes to a child, the more questions they ask, or they move to seeking answers independently, leading to a cycle of repeated engagement and a culture of learning.”

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