Children are complex creatures who develop in various ways at various developmental stages. According to Thompson (2001), children grow in four interrelated areas (body, person, mind, and brain), and these four components involve the complex interplay of many factors: physical size, motor coordination, general health, thinking, language, symbolism, concepts, problem-solving, relationships, social understanding, emotions, neural and synapse. With respect to overall cognitive development in infants and toddlers, while countless environmental factors appear to have a measurable effect, the degree of significance of genetics is still under debate. Abundant recent research covers a wide range of topics related to environmental effects (or lack thereof) on the development of intelligence, learning, memory, and problem-solving in very young children. Some areas studied and analyzed include the effects of audiovisual stimulation, playtime and fun, interactive story-time, father involvement, and socioeconomic status.
Audiovisual stimulation from "Baby Einstein" type DVDs has become a popular way for mothers to occupy infants as they drive or take care of other responsibilities, and currently, computer game-based toys are also gaining popularity with mothers of very young children. Books such as How to Multiply Your Baby's Intelligence (Doman, 1984) have been around for years, and encourage parent to begin teaching their infants math, English, and other languages immediately after birth (Akiba, 2009). These products are purported to accelerate development of the mind, affect, and creativity (Akiba, 2009). Yet recent research suggests this type of multi-sensory stimulation may be unnatural and excessive, leading to overstimulation (Akiba, 2009). This overexcitement can actually be a hindrance to cognitive development (Akiba, 2009). In fact, none of the aforementioned educational products was developed in collaboration with professional scholars of cognitive development (Akiba, 2009). Furthermore, there is no scientific evidence to support the advertising claims that these products accelerate development in infants and toddlers (Akiba, 2009). The common misconception that listening to classical music enhances intelligence is based on studies of college students and children over the age of two, not infants or toddlers (Akiba, 2009; Van der Linde, 1999).
On the contrary, sound scientific evidence does exist which suggests that early sensory overstimulation can inhibit cognitive development (Akiba, 2009), particularly if it occurs too regularly. According to the "renowned" neuroscientist Huttenlocher (2002), "early cognitive stimulation may be counterproductive to the enhancement of children's intelligence, because brain cells reserved for unspecified future development may be prematurely occupied by information to which children are exposed early in their lives" (Akiba, 2009). Other researchers' work suggests that a child's genetics and natural interests may play such a critical role that very early efforts to boost cognitive development and IQ may be a waste of time (Akiba, 2009).
Many parents and teachers will attest that children learn best when they are actively engaged and having fun. This means they have a personal, emotional investment in the activity, such as when they are allowed to direct their own play. According to Cameron et al. (2008), "few areas of development are as important to early intervention as play (5)." Play is the "natural way" to simultaneously stimulate intellect involved in language, symbolism, general cognition, sensorimotor skills, self-realization, and emotion (Cameron & al, 2008; Leppo & al, 2000; Fletcher & Sabo, 2006). Gottfried (1984) viewed play as "a complex, multidimensional sequence of behaviors that changes considerably in process and morphology, particularly during infancy and the early childhood years" (Smith, 1995). And "Sutton-Smith (1993) expressed the opinion that, '…the usefulness of parents playing with children...is based on 150 years of accumulated doctrine about the positive values of child play from Rousseau to Piaget'" (Smith, 1995).
In addition, research suggests that children are naturally drawn to activities that promote their overall development, so leaving them to their own devices is not always a bad idea ( (Isenberg & Quisenberry, 2002). But despite so much evidence in support of the positive effects of play on cognitive development in infants and toddlers, the focus among some parents and educators has recently shifted to more rigorous, mentally-stimulating activities and curriculums, even for extremely young children (Akiba, 2009). Akiba's recent findings that this chronic, heightened stimulation may be counterproductive (2009) suggests that the focus should be returned to allowing more relaxed, self-directed play-time (Isenberg & Quisenberry, 2002). Even the Association for Childhood Education (ACEI) advocates the use of play to stimulate overall child development (Isenberg & Quisenberry, 2002), claiming that increased stress from pressures to advance calls for increased play-time to counteract that stress (Isenberg & Quisenberry, 2002). Furthermore, play and "inter-mental" activities may stimulate areas of cognitive development neglected by more focused "intra-mental" activities, such as planning, social skills, and creative aptitude (Isenberg & Quisenberry, 2002; Cameron & al, 2008). Very young children are also highly egocentric, and play takes advantage of this fact rather than attempting to squelch it. In addition, play-time allows individual children to learn at their own pace and build upon their current knowledge and development level, whereas trying to force a child to be "smarter" is likely a waste of time (Akiba, 2009; Isenberg & Quisenberry, 2002). In support of Piaget's theories on the stages of cognitive development, children will engage in "practice play" when appropriate (sensorimotor period), and "symbolic play" when they are operating at that level (preoperational) (Casby, 2003).
Other studies suggest the positive impact of relaxed, humorous "play" on cognitive development in toddlers (Cameron & al, 2008). If a child is laughing, they are naturally actively engaged and interested. On top of that, early use of humor encourages the observation and manipulation of "collaboratively everyday incongruities," which stimulates cognitive development by providing "scope for early environmental and social mastery" (Cameron & al, 2008; Casby, 2003). In other words, humor simultaneously engages a child's affect and intellect in unique and important ways.
Adult-child interactions may be more likely to involve humor since adults have a fully-developed sense of humor; however, children of the same age may gain more from exchanging humor since they are operating at roughly the same level. This is one reason why play needs to take place between children as peers, and between children and adults (Dodici & al, 2003). Adult-child interaction is necessary for cognitive development because it offers an "apprentice-type relationship" in which children are being guided and trained as they interact (Dodici & al, 2003). However, studies also show that the quality of this adult-child interaction is just as critical to development as the activity itself. In other words, parents or teachers must be able to counteract the frustrations inherent in learning with appropriate warmth, support, and sensitivity (Dodici & al, 2003). The quality of adult-child interactions is also dependent upon the "amount of talk, guidance style," variety and amount of words used, and caretaker consistency in quality interaction (Dodici & al, 2003). Overall, multiple researchers have found that positive cognitive development depends on a combination of joint attention, guidance, caretaker responsivity, and "positive emotional tone," (Dodici & al, 2003). In her summary article on the positive effects of play on cognitive development in very young children, Smith (1995) found a correlation between heightened development and many possible aspects of play, including: applied "parents as teachers" type programs, the introduction of play immediately after birth when the brain is developing most rapidly, positive home environment, guidance and control of context, personal and relationship communication building, making use of identified intellectual strengths in individual children, nurturing attachment with caretakers and teachers through warmth and caring, consistent rules balanced by adequate freedom, physical spontaneity, motor skill development activities, social spontaneity, harmonious play, encouragement of prosocial behaviors, cognitive spontaneity, pretend play, creative play, pleasure in playing, increased emotional expression, and the use of humor in play. Clearly, the topic of encouraging cognitive development through play is in itself a broad and complicated subject.
But play with father vs. mother is also proving to be critical. The importance of father-child interactions in addition to mother-child interactions should not be ignored (Roggman & al, 2004). Although the type of play may be the same in either case, having a separate guidance relationship from a male parent appears to have a "robust" effect on cognitive developmental outcomes (Roggman & al, 2004). As with mothers, the quality of interaction is still critical; fathers with inconsistent time commitments or a lack of "psychosocial well-being" will not be as helpful (Roggman & al, 2004). However, studies suggest that involving fathers, in addition to mothers, in "head-start" parenting education programs can counter the negative effects of "poor psychosocial well-being" (Roggman & al, 2004). Also, while fathers may naturally tend to engage children in more "roughhousing" types of play, these studies show that men should also take time to regularly participate in "toy-sharing" and conversational play with their children in order to maximize cognitive development (Roggman & al, 2004).
Keeping a child interested and engaged while learning is critical for any caretaker, and with all the hype lately surrounding Attention Deficit Disorder (ADD) in older children, some scholars have taken an interest in studying the ways attentiveness develops in children and…