Cognitive skills are the way we understand and make sense of the world around us. Kids have a whole arsenal of cognitive skills they use to tackle the demands of the day: from getting ready for school in the morning to completing their homework in the evening and everything in between.
They need to be able to analyze thousands of large and small tasks almost constantly from the minute their eyes open in the morning. They have to plan, organize, and sequence their approach. Then, they have to follow through with their plan efficiently, adapting and adjusting their approach as they go.
First, kids need to be able to attend, mentally sifting through all of the other things in their environments that are competing for their attention – the sights, the sounds, the smells. As they get older, they even learn how to divide their attention between multiple tasks at the same time.
Kids need to demonstrate the ability to remember events and information and recognize familiar things and people. They use their short-term, or working memory to remember smaller snippets of information for a limited amount of time (e.g. a phone number). And long-term memory helps them retain more significant information for much longer periods of time (e.g. a concept taught in math class that will continue to be used throughout the school year and beyond).
Kids have to be able to initiate, or begin working toward a goal, efficiently and effectively – picture a teacher giving an assignment or instruction and the students beginning the task without difficulty. This involves generating original ideas and problem-solving methods. Kids also have to be alert and need to sustain alertness for the duration of a task. Some children struggle with maintaining an optimal state of attention and alertness and may need more sensory input or less sensory input to do so.
In the midst of all this serious work, kids also have to develop the ability to cope emotionally and behaviorally with the many challenges, obstacles, frustrations that get in their way. They have to regulate their behavior to match social and contextual expectations. For example, the behavior expectations on the playground are much different than the expectations in the library. And they have to control their impulses even when they are being challenged or distracted.
As they grow and develop, children also become better able to anticipate what might come next, which helps them plan ahead and become even more efficient at problem-solving. And, after they’ve completed a task or navigated a situation using all of the skills described above (and many more), kids also learn how to self-evaluate their own performance. What worked? What didn’t work? How might they do better next time?
It’s amazing to think about how hard little ones’ brains are working all day long, usually without them even trying! There are many great (and simple ways) to work on cognitive skills with kids. Here are some of our favorites:
2 || Memory games like Who’s Missing?
3 || Problem-solving games like Giant Pickup Sticks
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