Wednesday, July 16, 2008

Brain researcher Patricia Wolfe on what babies really need to develop

Pat Wolfe is worried about your toddler.“I’ve been reading a lot of articles lately about the growing number of parents who are concerned about getting their children into the best academic preschools to ensure they do well when they begin their formal schooling,” the leading brain researcher and author of "Brain Matters," tells The Parent Diaries. “Some are even signing their babies up before they are born. Given the research on early brain development, trying to create a ‘super baby’ or ‘super child’ doesn’t make sense. In fact, it runs counter to what we know about how a child’s brain develops.”

Here’s what Wolfe suggests:

1. Understand the science.

In the past decade, there has been an explosion of information in the field of brain research (neuroscience).

“No longer a mysterious black box as once was thought, researchers can actually see what is going on inside our skulls while we interact with our environment,” Wolfe explains, noting that contrary to an earlier belief that a baby’s brain was a blank state, scientists have discovered that learning begins before birth (babies are born recognizing their mother’s voice and music they heard while in the womb).

“We now know that young children learn faster than was ever thought possible,” she adds. “In fact, in the first three to four years the young child’s brain develops connections (synapses) between cells at an amazing rate, one that will never be duplicated again during the child’s life.”

Unfortunately, this information has been misinterpreted to mean babies and young children need extra stimulation during this critical period. “This is not only an over-simplification of the research,” Wolfe insists. “It is not true.”

2. Separate fact from fiction.

The fiction: Synapses represent learning, and the more synapses a child has the smarter he’ll be.

The fact: In truth, the brain overproduces connections in the first two years, and an important part of learning and development is to prune away the unnecessary ones. For example, Wolfe explains that babies are born with millions of cells that potentially allow them to pronounce the sounds of every language spoken in the world. “However, only the connections for sounds of the language they hear everyday are strengthened,” she says. “The ones not used are simply pruned away, which allows children to understand, and eventually speak, the language spoken at home.”

The fiction: Enriched environments are essential during the early years to develop a child’s brain to its fullest potential.

The fact: Excessive use of flash cards, workbooks, language tapes and “educational” computer games is not only inappropriate, it also deprives children of the natural interaction with their world so important to development. “As Stephen Meltzoff states in his book, The Scientist in the Crib, perhaps the question parents need to ask is not: “What is the effect of the environment on the brain?” But rather: “What is the effect of a deprived environment versus a normal or an enriched environment?”

3. Use good common sense.

Consider what truly is a deprived environment, she says. “We know the ability to speak a language is lost by about age 10 if children, because of deafness or lack of exposure to language, do not master this skill in their early years,” Wolfe notes. “Being raised in a severely impoverished environment can cause a child’s emotional growth to be stunted, as reported in the studies of Romanian orphans.”

Fortunately, most children are not raised under severely deprived conditions. But, she asks, does an enriched environment somehow change a child’s development? Is it really better? Can we produce “super babies?” Or are high-priced toys marketed to frantic parents a waste of time and money? The bottom line, Wolfe says, is that there is no proof extra stimulation is necessary for cognitive or social growth. “Rather, too much activity may result in over-stimulation and damage to a young child,” she concludes.

4. Take a simpler approach.

Parents would be helping their babies more by reading nursery rhymes and books by Dr. Seuss to the child to their little ones. “They are ideal because they introduce children to sounds that are alike, which is a natural introduction to beginning phonics,” she offers, adding that educators need to explain to parents that the human brain is innately curious and designed to learn. “Young children are driven to master their world. Hands-on play is best because it gives children a chance to explore their own interests with the support of involved adults.

5. No, TV is not evil, but ...

“Baby Einstein is not bad,” Wolfe concedes, “but raising a happy, healthy child is a matter of finding balance. Mostly, children need models of appropriate social interactions and a physically and psychologically safe haven in which to grow up.” The bottom line, she says, is to provide a rich, varied, natural environment, “and this will happen without a lot of intervention. I believe parents know instinctively what they need to do to raise their kids well. They simply need to relax and trust their own intuition.”

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