We have the physical skill to do it, but (as many adults know) doing it well often remains a challenge: Making Connections.
And this simple, yet complex act is an essential skill for children to learn as part of executive functioning and the skills required for a lifetime of learning.
Mind in the Making defines “Making Connections” as “Putting information into categories—figuring out what’s the same and what’s different; seeing out how one thing relates to or represents something else; and finding unusual connections.”
MITM reviewed various research, including:
Liz Spelke of Harvard University, and Fei Xu of the University of British Columbia, found that babies as young as six months old have a number sense— they can detect that there are differences between smaller and larger groups of things, such as eight and 16 dots, eight and 16 jumps of a puppet or honks of a horn. Families can build on this number sense to help children learn to make connections.
It takes a longer time for children to learn that one thing can stand for something else. For example, Judy DeLoache of the University of Virginia found that two-and-a-half year old children were not able to find a hidden object in a life-sized room, even though they had watched an exact replica of that object hidden in the same place in a miniature version of the room. With older children, parents can help children learn that one thing can represent another (a picture of an animal represents that real animal).
Robert Siegler from Carnegie Mellon University and Geetha Ramani of the University of Maryland found that a simple board game based on Chutes and Ladders helped children see connections among numbers and learn math skills, such as counting and numerical magnitude.
Philip David Zelazo of the University of Minnesota showed children a series of cards with pictures on them and asked the child to sort the cards by color and then by shape. Three year olds had great difficulty with this task, which requires them to remember two rules at the same time, inhibit an automatic response, think flexibly, and reflect. This kind of thinking takes place in the prefrontal cortex of the brain as children move into the preschool years and is critical to learning.
The tips that MITM synthesize from the research:
Help children see connections in their everyday lives. With preschoolers, tear out pictures of things on your marketing list and have children find them on the store shelves.
Use “math talk” in everyday conversations and play: “You’re eating two cookies” or “I’m holding three fingers up.”
Play board games that provide opportunities for matching—animals, letters of the alphabet, colors and dominoes
Play games that help children preschool age and older make unusual connections, such as asking them how two things go together in one way and then how they go together in another way. Learning to see unusual connections is the basis of creativity.