We now know more than ever about how babies and young children’s brains are built, thanks to advances in science research. What is interesting to note, is that these new insights are telling us that the way our grandparents parented is in fact the ideal model. It is called ‘ancestral’ parenting and it is simple.
We have a tendency to over-complicate things and more recently, parenting has become susceptible to this trend. We have witnessed a surge in products aimed at parents of babies and children that claim that they will accelerate a child’s brain development and learning. Think Baby Einstein DVDs, Apptivity Cases for babies, reading flashcards for toddlers and laptops for preschoolers. It is little wonder that parents are feeling overwhelmed and pressured to but these products, when their marketing claims suggest that they will “make your baby smarter” and “improve your child’s brain development”. In actual fact, many of these products are not helpful and in fact some can be detrimental to a child’s learning and development.
So what essential information do parents need to know? What is marketing hype?
What DOES build a child’s brain?
I like to use a building block analogy. Why? We know that the brain is built from the bottom up, much the same way building blocks are used. So simple brain circuits are built first and then more complex brains circuits are built next. A bit like building a house: first you lay the foundations and then you build the frame and the walls and roof are eventually built around this scaffolding. I also like to use the building block analogy as it explains how each of the different components are inter-connected.
The FIVE ESSENTIAL Building Blocks for Learning:
The first 2000 days of a child’s life are critical to ensure that optimal brain development occurs. Why? 85% of a child’s brain is developed by the time they are 3 years of age. It is essential that we get it right from the start.
These are the essential building blocks for learning in a digital age and you will see that they are not complex and do not necessarily require expensive toys or gadgets or flashcards:
Relationships – we know that children need to form loving, stable and close attachments to their care-givers. We know that toxic stress is harmful for a developing brain and should be avoided at all costs. In a recent study conducted by Washington University School of Medicine, it was revealed that school-age children whose mothers nurtured them early in life had brains with a larger hippocampus – the hippocampus is part of the brain responsible for learning, memory and managing stress.
Language – it is critical that babies and children are exposed to as much language as possible. By 18 months of age, there are stark differences between children’s vocabulary scores and this gap continues to widen as they get older. Digital technologies like TVs and iPads have the potential to impact this developmental building block, if they are not used in the right ways, but they can also enrich language development if used appropriately (for example, Skype conversations with family members and co-viewing TV can actually support learning).
Nutrition – children’s brains require essential-fatty acids and Omega-3 for optimal development to occur. We now know that these nutrients coat the brain pathways and allow information to travel between brain cells at a much quicker rate, than they do without the fatty covering (a process called ‘myelination’).
Movement – children need to move to learn. It is vital that babies, toddlers and preschoolers have plenty of opportunities to explore how their bodies work. Too often children with poorly developed gross and fine motor movement skills struggle to learn when they enter formal schooling. Their brains have not had the correct neural pathways established through movement, so academic learning is virtually impossible for these children.
Sleep – babies and young children require sleep to ensure healthy brain development. (In fact, we all do). Screen technologies have the potential to cause sleep deficits if they are not used in the correct ways.
Dr Kristy Goodwin is the Director of Every Chance to Learn, an Honorary Associate at Macquarie University and a Mum! Her practical, evidence based approach is refreshing in this new field often characterised by media hype and conflicting research.