This past month I had the joyful experience of driving to Minnesota with my daughter’s family, which included my grandchildren: Keagan (5), Hudson (almost 3), and Charlotte Grace (9 months).
The children got to run around and explore my brother’s 165 acre farm, and I loved watching these city kids truly experience cows, horses, climbing up into tree houses, and playing in fields and, yes, even Indian teepees. I couldn’t wipe the smile off my face as I watched them happily playing and learning from dawn to dusk.
Then we drove another 15 hours to Colorado where my husband was playing concerts with the Dallas Symphony Orchestra in the Gerald Ford Amphitheater next to the Betty Ford Gardens. (here are some pictures from my recent newsletter)
Once again these young children had the glorious opportunity to experience listening to classical music while being outside in the mountains and then playing in gardens rich with the tapestry of flowers and waterfalls. We even went up into the mountains where they experienced the cold chill and wind. The hills were truly alive with the sounds of nature and music!
Frankly, I didn’t want to put them back into the car to spend another 15 hours driving back to Texas for ‘boring’ city life after these amazing experiences with God’s glorious creation! Grandma’s swimming pool and gardens pale in comparison. The trip reminded me of how children learn best and sadly, how children are often learning incompletely today.
Children learn through their five senses: they need to touch, smell, hear, taste, and truly have a sensory bath as they interact and explore. Instead, we put them in front of televisions or video games which rob them of the wondrous way their brains were created to function.
Yes, Dr. Myers and I are still working on our book The Miracle of the Mind of the Child. At some point, we will have to finally quit the joy of researching this extraordinarily fascinating topic and simply get the book over the finish line. For example, I just read “This Is Your Brain on Music” by Daniel J. Levitin and now I want to add information from that book into our book!
Music and the minds of children…two of my favorite subjects! Do you feel another blog ready to be birthed soon? I do! Especially after listening to the DSO play such exquisite music from Beethoven, Mozart, Prokofiev, Brahms, Shubert, Gershwin, and one of my favorites, “Symphony No. 8 in C Minor” by Anton Bruckner.
My time with my grandchildren inspired me to devote a few weeks’ posts to discussing the importance of stimulating a child’s brain — at each age level — so let’s take a little refresher course on Brain Basics 101.
FASCINATING FROM THE VERY BEGINNING
Babies are remarkable, aren’t they? Also incredible is that their development process begins months before they are even born! Anyone who has been around a child can attest to the amazing realization that new and exciting changes take place daily during the first few years of life.
Part of the responsibility of the parents, then, is to do all they can to stimulate the environment for that child’s rapidly developing brain.
However, simply opening the brain-stimulation floodgates is not the wisest approach. As is so often true in life, we need to proceed with balance, moderation, and informed decisions.
BREAKING DOWN THE BRAIN’S PARTS
Yes, I know it is summer, but let’s stretch our brains a little and educate ourselves about the brain. Are you ready for your Brain 101 class?
For today, let’s discuss the cerebral cortex and the crucial role it plays in your child’s brain development. Interestingly enough, the major areas of this part of our brain develop in a manner that actually provides a kind of navigation system that teaches parents how to provide the proper stimulation during each period of growth.
The external, demonstrable developmental map follows the internal, physical developmental map. In other words, behavior follows the brain.
First comes the occipital lobe, which deals with vision. Then comes the parietal lobe, which is concerned with touch and spatial understanding. Next, the temporal lobe centers on the auditory aspects of hearing, such as language development and musical ability. Finally, the frontal lobes develop last, with the motor cortex planning and regulating body movement while the prefrontal cortex (which develops far into adolescence and adulthood) handles reasoning, memory, self-control, attention, planning, and judgment.
By using this development pattern within the brain, we can better decide how to properly stimulate our child’s environment.
As you read, keep in mind the advice given by Dr. Jane Healy in her excellent book Your Child’s Growing Mind: “Your overall goal should not be to ‘teach’ your baby, but to help him or her discover how to organize experience for themselves.”
STIMULATION FOR THE BABY
This post will focus on babies and build from here to older children in posts that will follow. But the same guiding principle will remain true: you don’t need expensive toys to accomplish the necessary stimulation your child desires and thrives on — all you need is a loving parent/adult to help the child learn to navigate the complexities of their environment.
Most input for the infant is through the visual and motor systems. The baby must learn how to coordinate their seemingly random movements, from arms to eyes to legs. The order of development is important here, as mouth, eyes, arms, and hands come before legs and feet. Also, concrete, physical learning with the body ought to come before abstract learning. For example, stacking blocks come before counting with flash cards!
Stimulations such as bathing, touching, gentle tickling, patting, peekaboo, and stroking children with a variety of pleasant textures — velvet, feathers, cotton, etc. — are excellent means for helping the baby learn to control and develop their sense of movement and touch.
Exploring the world through gross motor skills also requires the right process of developmental stimulation. For example, placing children in walkers before adequate “tummy time” can have lasting negative effects down the road. Also, once a child learns to walk, it is important to allow them to do so as often as possible, even if it is slower than a stroller. Passively watching the world go by is not nearly as developmentally stimulating as exploring, investigating, and making connections by walking around, even side-to-side, which later helps with reading comprehension and math skills.
You may want to try this: “walk” around a familiar environment on your knees which will give you an entirely different perspective. For the baby, every thing is something to see, touch, explore, and learn about! As adults we often see life from a different perspective when we are with little ones because we notice things we have become desensitized to in our busy lives, and of course, at a different height.
With visual stimulation, one or two objects are plenty for the developing infant. In fact, a crib full of toys only overwhelms the child. Also, both novelty and familiarity are important. A balance between new stimulus, which a baby loves, and familiar objects provide a solid foundation for learning new things about the environment while deepening their understanding of other objects.
Another great tool is on occasion to combine visual stimulus with auditory or tactile stimulus. For example, slowly move an object while softly talking about it or making a sound, or combining interesting color contrasts with varying appealing textures. Such approaches help the child integrate sensory experience as they learn to focus on more than one sensory modality at a time.
Balance these multi-sensory experiences with those that only focus on one sensory input at a time, too. Again, overloading a child does not give more, it only takes away.
When it comes to auditory stimulus, a variety of soothing, pleasant, and interesting sounds are vital — one at a time. In fact, too much background noise — the dishwasher, music, television — makes sound discrimination difficult for babies, which can be detrimental to development. Monitor the sound level of their environment, and realize that even children’s television programs often are far too noisy for baby brains. A word to the wise is being careful to not have the television on too much. Your baby is absorbing everything and most is inappropriate for a baby.
Here is a note on pleasant tones and voices. If the human sounds around the infant are too loud and unpleasant, a baby may actually learn to tune them out. This later causes problems at school and in conversation. Replace those sounds with nursery rhymes, songs, and words that are soft, soothing, and loving.
Of course, reading books together is a tried-and-true method, much better than flash cards, for it helps a child develop a love of reading through positive associations with a loving lap, a parent’s enjoyment, and custom-tailored responses to the child’s interests.
Lastly, carry on conversations with your child. Language is learned early on, and as I wrote here, it cannot be learned from a TV, it must be from a live human, preferably a parent or loving caregiver.
IMPLICATIONS FOR OLDER CHILDREN
The implications here for older children abound, as you probably already can see for yourself. We will develop these ideas in coming installments, as well as come back from time-to-time on the importance of a proper foundation in these vital infant years. If you have questions, feel free to email me at firstname.lastname@example.org or ask via Twitter.
Originally published on 16 July 2012