Imagine your little one is in elementary school, stuck trying to solve a math problem one way. Then, his teacher shows him another way to approach it. He looks at the problem a new way and solves it. Later, he heads to recess expecting to play soccer because that’s what he and his friends talked about at lunch. When he gets outside, his friends start playing tag instead. He’s disappointed, but he goes with the flow and joins the game.
These are examples of cognitive flexibility, part of a larger set of cognitive skills that are central to everything we do.
Why is Cognitive Flexibility Important?
Cognitive flexibility allows us to:
1) Think about something in a new way (flexible thinking).
2) Go with the flow when our expectations change (set-shifting).
Cognitive flexibility is central to learning, problem solving, creativity, social interaction, and humor.
Children who struggle to develop cognitive flexibility may:
- Attempt to solve a same problem in the same way, even though their approach isn’t working.
- Have big emotional reactions to things they weren’t expecting.
- Have a hard time transitioning from one activity to another.
How Can You Support Cognitive Flexibility in the Early Years?
Cognitive flexibility begins to take center stage during the preschool years, but there are ways to start nurturing it now:
Allow plenty of time for movement and play, which present ongoing lessons in trying things differently to accomplish goals.
Try activities in our BabySparks program, including:
- Using Materials in Various Ways, Noticing Changes, and Similar & Different I & II (all of these introduce the idea of looking at objects in different ways)
- Pretend Games (these, along with other opportunities for symbolic play, are rich ways to teach your child to use objects/ideas in different ways).
- All of our reading activities introduce aspects of cognitive flexibility such as nuances in language, perspective-taking, and humor.
When your little one is stuck trying to solve a problem, guide him to look at it in a new way: I see you’re trying to put the square in the puzzle. Is there another place it can go?
Switch things up. Yes, routines are good for kids. But within those routines you can build in small surprises: One day, instead of going straight from dinner to bath time, take your little one outside for a few minutes of play. Or when you’re leaving your house, grab his hand (or pick him up) and say, Let’s walk backwards to the car today! These unexpected twists teach your little one that it’s okay to do things in different ways.
Model it. When unexpected things pop up and throw you off, an attitude of flexibility is a powerful way to show your little one how to go with the flow.
Remember that little ones, to certain extent, are inflexible! It takes time for cognitive flexibility to develop, but nurturing it from the start can help.