Tuesday, January 26, 2016

Neurons That Fire Together—Wire Together

Developing Young Minds: From Conception To Kindergarten


Dr. Rebecca Shore’s landmark book, Developing Young Minds: From Conception to Kindergarten, introduces an essential paradigm shift in perspective that is needed on educating children. 

Introduction: The Scientist In The Crib  

Everything we do with and say to babies alters their brain biologically and neurologically—ultimately changing their lives. Cognitive stimulation is occurring naturally around babies because, literally, everything is new to them. In educational terms, the baby is born a student ready to learn. Their very existence is focused around learning to adapt to their new world. This is an enormous responsibility, not just for parents but also for society as a whole.

Touch and talk to your infant
Hey, I think this is gonna be a good life!

The Learning Gap Conundrum

Many children enter kindergarten unready and unmotivated to learn. Why? The answer lies in what is happening—and not happening—in the child’s environment between the maternity ward and the first day of formal school that often stifles this natural urge to learn. It is stifled when neural circuits that could be formed and want to be formed cannot be formed because of a lack of positive stimuli in a timely manner. Every Kindergarten teacher can tell which children came from environments that were rich with a wide assortment of appropriate constructive inspiration. A “seamless” education for children is only possible if it begins at birth.

tactile manipulation
Hey, how about smoothies after the game?

Babies: Touch Them and Talk To Them

Traditionally, it has been the health and safety of babies that has concerned parents, pediatrics and other early-on caregivers. It is true babies are born with a developed network of tactile receptors—responding well to hugs, loving strokes, and cuddling. And the more they feel, the more data are sent from the skin to the brain. But, when can their thinking capacity be enhanced? It seems many people still believe newborns are not doing much complex thinking at all. In fact, they are incredibly high-powered thinking individuals. Human beings have more brain cells at birth than at any time in their lives, but they are pruned away if not kindled—“use them or lose them.” Nurturing neural networks in the brains of infants is as important as providing food for tummies and clean diapers for bottoms. Babies, infants, and young children are receptive to far more multifaceted information from their environment than many believe is possible. Our world must simply be presented to babies in a conscientious and purposeful manner, one that works for them developmentally.

Mom, why are there musical notes hanging in the air?

The Prefrontal Cortex

Evolutionary, as well as in individual brain growth, the last area of the brain to develop is the prefrontal cortex. This is where imagining, reasoning, and visualization takes place—our most advanced thinking. The prefrontal cortex is not developed in babies. Neurologists believe that it is largely dependent upon a nurturing environment for proper maturity. Children with a highly developed prefrontal cortex use it more. For example, when a child asks “why” to everything they see or hear, this is positive evidence of cerebral development and is to be celebrated—never stifled!

Timber—gravity works!

Learning and Development

Lev Vygotsky, a highly respected professor of psychology, believed that all higher-order mental processes, such as reasoning and problem solving are accomplished through the tools of language, signs, and symbols. Children learn these tools by observing others in their day-to-day experiences. Vygotsky saw a complex relationship between learning and development, claiming that learning can actually lead development, and genuine learning always involves more than one human being. He saw that there is a distinct difference between what a child can accomplish unassisted and what a child can accomplish in an environment deliberately structured to provide assistance. The difference between what a child can perform completely alone versus in a learning environment with ‘hints’ or ‘clues’ from an adult Vygotsky called the “Zone of Proximal Development”, or “ZPD.” This term is quite popular in education, and comes naturally to some parents—but not all.

You should see what's under here, dad

Routine Activities Equals Learning Opportunities

While babies cannot talk to us in their infancy, they absorb and process as much data as they are exposed to—the more complex the better. Complex means high quality. Actively hearing talk and being talked with solicits much higher-level responses in the brain than passive observation—like watching TV. Having a dialogue with a baby is possible! An exchange of language, verbal and non-verbal, elicits joy in the baby. Being spoken to, questioned, and looked at with anticipation—experiencing the wait time needed for a response—perhaps just a blink of the eye, wiggle of the legs, a smile, or a coo is enough for a conversation! Complexity is about connections. Children are born with a great capacity for language but don’t learn to speak at all unless they are spoken to. The richness of a life with well-developed speech and language abilities is directly dependent on exposure to diverse speech patterns in the first years of life.

You got that right, Einstein!

Neurons That Fire Together—Wire Together

Children need to be able to freely interact with their environment in a relaxing and challenging manner—better known as ‘play’! Play is children’s work. Given plenty of choice, and the opportunity for fantasy, the child is able to increase the strength of the intellectual makeup within the brain. Helping young children accomplish what they are naturally wired to happily do should not be a high-pressure competition. Pushing children through stages of development is not necessary—it is not a “Tiger Mom” race. The schedule for what is ‘normal’ is quite loose, as each child is an individual on his or her own timetable. Albert Einstein, associated with an amazing ability to think, did not complete high school and is said to have not talked much until the age of four.

early learning
I can't believe what I'm seeing!


Society doesn’t fully grasp the importance of neglecting the infant human brain—yet. If they did, there would be maternity ward education centers with free information and training—baby libraries. There would be government and state funded mother and father schools for first-time parents, home-assistance/visiting programs from conception to kindergarten, and high-quality universal preschool with well-trained—well-paid teachers. The failure to provide an enriched environment for babies and young children prevents them from realizing their full human potential to develop cognitively and become whatever they could have become in life—it takes away choices. Developing the infant brain needs care, cultivation, and complexity—we as a moral, just, and enlightened society are all responsible—the results, when we take action, are astounding!

Best always, Papa Green Bean

This is the third and final article reviewing Developing Young Minds: From Conception to Kindergarten. Here are links to the first two articles:

 An Investment with Rich Rewards and Returns 

 Music Matters:The Bach Effect