Kaadambare Mahesh
Are you as smart as this tot? Three-year-old Kaadambare Mahesh can recite all the capital cities of the world Image Credit: Supplied

How many of the capital cities of the world could you recite without help? 30? 50 maybe? 100 at a push? What about all 196?

A Dubai-based three-year-old girl has learnt to recite all 196 capital cities of the world by heart, at an age when many children are still just learning to talk.

Little Kaadambare Mahesh, whose family hails from Chennai, India, was taught to pronounce and recall the names of all of the world’s capitals by her mother, Divya Sornam, and father, Mahesh Krishnan K.P.N., as a way to keep her busy and engaged during the pandemic.

“It all started as an experiment where we asked her to name a few capital cities a day, but within a matter of two to three months our daughter was able to do them all,” her father Mahesh told Gulf News.

A strategy to reduce screen time

Kaadambare’s parents didn't set out to turn their child into a genius. Rather, they were concerned that lockdown, nursery closures and the inability to socialize with other children would mean that Kaadambare ended up having a disproportionate amount of screen time.

Although neither parent has any background in teaching, learning the world’s capital cities seemed like a constructive way to occupy her without using a screen, says Mahesh: “Because of the pandemic we were unable to sign her up to professional coaching of any sort, and we were conscious of minimizing her use of electronic gadgets. Hence we tried all other possible measures to engage her happily and productively. One such measure was academic training taught by us as her parents.”

It started gradually at first, but Kaadambare soon showed a talent for committing the capital cities' names to memory quickly and easily.

From Nouakchott (the capital of Mauritiana) to Ulaanbaatar (Mongolia), and Riga (Latvia) to Kampala (Uganda), three-year-old Kaadambare - who is also bilingual in Tamil and English - has overcome any problems she had with pronunciation and she can now recite the names of almost 200 capital cities fluently, in alphabetical order.

Kaadambare Mahesh's parents taught her the capitals as a way to keep her busy during the pandemic
Kaadambare Mahesh's parents taught her the capitals as a way to keep her busy during the pandemic Image Credit: Supplied

Gifted in more ways than one

Kaadambare’s parents say they believe she is a gifted child – not only because of her memorization abilities, but also because she resembles her cherished late paternal Grandmother in appearance.

Mahesh and Divya both credit Kaadambare’s grandparents with the little girl’s verbal proficiency, explaining that they used to speak to her constantly – both in person while staying with them in Dubai, and via regular video calls when the grandparents were back in India.

The pandemic has been a challenging time for the family, as Mahesh sadly lost his father during the time of flight restrictions and they were unable to travel home to attend his final rights. “Kaadambare misses her Grandpa a lot," says Mahesh. "They were very affectionate towards each other and she had also started learning drawing from her Grandfather, who was an artist.”

Helping Kaadambare with her capital cities provided some focus away from the sadness and worry of the pandemic, and also enabled her parents to understand and bond with her even more.

While Kaadambare may be a gifted child in the sense that she can grasp names and memorise them easily, she is really just a normal 3-year-old girl who loves to play
While Kaadambare may be a gifted child in the sense that she can grasp names and memorise them easily, she is really just a normal 3-year-old girl who loves to play Image Credit: Supplied

Ambitions for the future

When she’s not reciting capital cities, Kaadambare spends a lot of time drawing, singing, reciting sacred verses in Tamil, and swimming. Her parents say they are keen to provide her with as many opportunities as possible, so that she can decide what she likes and wants to pursue. “Above all we constantly strive to teach her life ethics,” says Mahesh.

Now that nurseries and schools are functioning fully again in Dubai, the family has enrolled Kaadambare in an Indian curriculum school for the next academic year, and they have also just started sending her to a nearby nursery for some socialization.

Her parents have big plans for this gifted little girl, although they say that her wishes will always come first. “We plan to help her explore professional swimming, abacus training, and music lessons are very much on the cards and could be started any time soon. But most importantly we also need to understand what make her interested and then think and move accordingly.”

Kaadambare's parents credit her grandparents with much of her abilities, since they would spend so much time talking to her over video chats
Kaadambare's parents credit her grandparents with much of her abilities, since they would spend so much time talking to her over video chats Image Credit: Supplied
6 Ways to improve your child’s intelligence
Zeena Assam, Co-founder & Managing Director at Creative Nest Nursery in Dubai, shares her tips for boosting your child's IQ...

• Take them to a library to provide a wide selection of books that will continue to engage them.

• Allow them to safely explore their environment and discover new things as often as possible.

• Be guided by their interests. Take them to museums, parks, and exhibitions that will intrigue them.

• Find toys and resources that will spark their curiosity and allow them to learn.

• Most importantly, allow them to feel their feelings. Have age appropriate discussions about emotions and support them through the tough ones.

• Discuss it with their teacher if they have one, and ask for support or further ideas from your child’s school

The Pros and Cons of 'Learning by rote'

Committing large amounts of information to memory through repetition like Kaadambare has done with the capital cities is known as 'learning by rote'. But, although reciting multiplication tables or passages of poetry off by heart used to be the norm in education, this sort of repetitive memorisation technique has fallen out of mainstream favour in recent years.

“Rote memorization is a very traditional method of learning,” says Zeena Assam, Co-founder & Managing Director at Creative Nest Nursery in Dubai. “Education has significantly evolved in the past few decades, and has leaned towards skills such as problem solving, creativity and experimentation.”

Now that a quick Google can bring up any fact under the sun within seconds, and with children accessing technology from a very early age, the approach of learning ‘parrot fashion’, as it is disparagingly called, can seem archaic. “The problem with rote memorization is that it does not require the understanding of the material being memorized,” says Assam. “Young children are going to repeat what they hear, and that’s okay. What’s important is that we don’t feel like we spend their time or ours reciting facts that they have no understanding of.”

Higher-order skills such as analyzing, synthesizing and critical thinking have been prioritized over mere fact-recall in children’s learning, with a lot of educators being of the belief that if you can Google it, why would you teach it?

However, a recent backlash has brought learning by rote back into the fray...

How learning by rote can make kids smarter

There are several well established scientific studies that show the more factual knowledge people have about a topic (even without understanding), the better they can think about it analytically.

A seminal study published back in 1946 is often cited because it showed that master chess players are better than weaker players not because they are generally better at critical thinking, but because of their vast knowledge of all the different chess moves, which they have acquired through memorization.

Meanwhile a 2016 review of neurological studies by the University of Hertfordshire in the UK concluded that learning facts without understanding does not affect their later recall, and actually supports the subsequent development of understanding.

It’s all to do with the different ways in which we store memories...

Memory versus understanding

Most of what we do is done using our Working Memory. But this only has a very limited amount of space.

Our Long Term memory on the other hand is almost infinite – think of it as like The Cloud to our Working Memory hard drive.

When people see information only once, they forget 70 to 80% of it within two weeks, according to AI developer Cerego. But they’re much more likely to remember information if they repeatedly try to recall it after it’s been partially forgotten.

In this way, learning certain facts by rote can help to shift items in your Working Memory across to your Longterm Memory, freeing up space in your Working Memory for analytical and critical thinking (the equivalent of a disk space ‘clean up’ if you will).

However, the criticism that rote learning is ‘dry’ or ‘boring’ is less easily refuted. But it all depends on how individual children like to learn, and some techniques will work better for some children than for others. Dana Alqinneh, Head of Curriculum at Creative Nest Nursery in Dubai, says: “As early years practitioners who advocate for play-based learning and child-led practices, we don’t believe very much benefit comes from having children learn a large number or names or names by rote by heart, unless that’s what that specific child wanted and had expressed an interest in.”

Could your child be gifted?
Here are some signs that your child could be gifted, according to Zeena Assam, Co-founder & Managing Director at Creative Nest Nursery in Dubai

• They are intensely curious and ask a lot of questions
• They have original ideas
• They have a large vocabulary and engaged in long conversations
• They are cognitively advanced and are able to teach themselves skills
• Has a talent for puzzles or patterns
• They are empathetic
• They want to learn everything about the world
BC How to raise a future genius

7 Ways to bring out your child’s inner genius

Some of us may find it taboo to admit; others are more open about our ambitions when it comes to our children. There’s nothing wrong with wanting our kids to grow up a little cleverer than all the rest. But what exactly is smart? And how do we assess this in the modern child?

“We usually associate ‘smart’ with intelligence and good performance at school,” says Dr Valeria Risoli, a clinical psychologist at Dubai Physiotherapy and Family Medicine Clinic. “But it means much more.”

Smart has evolved, many experts agree, to reach beyond the results of standardised tests. It is more than book smart. Today’s smart child is emotionally intelligent, practical, resourceful and inventive.

Encourage originality

Nonconformists move the world, says author Adam Grant. His book Originals is devoted to this notion. One of the key points he believes in is that children should be taught in ‘conditionals’ not absolutes.
In an interview with NPR (National Public Radio) in the US, he explained, “Instead of saying, ‘This is a book,’ you teach them that this could be a book. And then they’re more likely to ask questions about the things that they say as opposed to assuming that there’s one right answer. We could do a lot more encouraging kids to ask questions about multiple possibilities as opposed to searching for the one correct answer.”

So how does conditional learning make your child smarter? Think of it this way: you can raise your child to play the piano – amazing in its own right. Or, you can raise a child who can compose his own musical score. Encouraging your children to feel good in their abilities (and hence, uniqueness) is a great idea, says Dr Risoli. “It helps them feel motivated but it’s important to be smart about how you praise.

“It is effective to praise children for their effort and work [rather than their achievements]. This motivates them to try things that are challenging, reduce the anxiety of performing well, and improve their self-esteem.”

Embrace your child’s unique skills

Building on the idea of raising an original thinker, American entrepreneur Cameron Herold has spoken about moving beyond textbook education to embrace inherent talents and skills. “We get told that we need to study harder or be more focused or get a tutor. My parents got me a tutor in French and I still suck at French. Yet, when I was in Grade 2, I won a speaking contest but nobody ever said, ‘Hey, this kid’s a good speaker, he can’t focus but he loves walking around and getting people energised.”

So, your child may not be the best at spelling, and maybe he never will be. But he may have an under-appreciated skill that is equally representative of his intelligence. “Be positive about these differences,” says Dr Risoli. “Embracing dissimilarity is essential to improve his self-esteem; a basic element that has an enormous effect on his success and growth.”

Understand your own power

The theory of observational learning, where children discern their role-models and imitate them, is largely the brainchild of eminent psychologist Albert Bandura. The idea is simple, if you do “smart” things, for example, reading or learning a new language, your child will do the same. Observational learning is said to be particularly important during childhood – a stage when we are quick to mimic behaviour.

Let go of expectations

Do not treat your children as little “projects”, advises Dr Risoli. “A good score on a test is not really predictive of the success of that child. Understand his cognitive profile but realise that it is also just a number, and it need not define his entire future. As parents we must be careful to not define children upon a score, and rather better understand what makes kids grow smarter.”

Get them moving

Exercise can make your child smarter! The theory has been around for ages and there are studies and research to validate the claims. Most notably, a 2010 study by the National Institutes of Health in the US specifically showed that when children exercise consistently, their brains ‘bulk up’. In this particular study, brain scans after exercise showed that the fitter kids had significantly larger basal ganglia of the brain, which helps maintain attention and coordinate thoughts and actions effectively.

Make screen time active

Real learning is not passive – children need to be constantly, actively stimulated. “Do babies learn from baby media?” was the question posed by one study whose results were published in Psychological Science (2010).

The answer was ‘no’, as the study explained: “The most important result was that children who viewed a DVD did not learn any more words from their month-long exposure to it than did a control group. The highest level of learning occurred in a no-video condition in which parents tried to teach their children the same target words during everyday activities.” So making learning part of daily life, including during other regular routines, can be much more effective. And while screen time may be unavoidable during the pandemic, try to limit it to educational programmes that encourage active participation – and ideally a parent or caregiver should be watching with the child and help to put their learning in context.

Keeping learning despite the pandemic

While regular routines may be disrupted due to COVID-19, there is still plenty parents can do to help child develop their skills, says says Zeena Assam, Co-founder & Managing Director at Creative Nest Nursery in Dubai. “Create an environment at home to spark curiosity, imagination, exploration and critical thinking.”

Depending on the age of the child, open ended resources and equipment can ensure that the child is learning through play, while “for a parent who does not come from an educational background, some research online would be beneficial to the parent,” says Zeena.

There are many websites and social media accounts that offer lots of home activity ideas that encourage the development of skills and knowledge for young children. “Two Instagram accounts that we recommend that have been created by our own teachers for this sole purpose (helping parents create meaningful learning opportunities at home) are @ourcuriousplay and @simply_bebasata,” says Zeena. “Parents are encouraged to create a routine at home, and build in flexibility and breaks. A child’s (and the parent’s!) wellbeing is paramount during the pandemic, so it is okay to relax expectations during this difficult time.”