Dr Pat Wolfe I Photography by La Bella Vita Photography.

Parents can spend hundreds of dollars buying the latest educational flashcards and DVDs for their babies to make them smarter. However, does it really help? Dr Pat Wolfe looks at the current research into brain development to determine whether these products actually work.

Recently I’ve been reading articles in the news about the large number of parents who are concerned about getting their children into what they consider the best “academic” preschools in order to make certain they do well when they begin their formal schooling. Some are even signing their babies up before they are born! This concern and push for an earlier introduction to academics are troubling. One of the definitions in the dictionary for the word academic is” that which is too far from immediate reality.” I think that’s an apt description of some of the programs being touted to anxious parents. Given the research on early brain development, trying to create a “super baby” or “super child” doesn’t make sense and, in fact, runs counter to what we are learning about how children’s brains develop.

Let’s take a look at the possible origins of this upsurge of interest in the early years. In the past decade, there has been an explosion of information in the field of brain research (neuroscience.) With the development of new brain-imaging techniques, the brain is no longer as much of a mysterious “black box” as it once was. Researchers now have the ability to see what is going on inside brains as subjects interact with their environment, and their findings are being reported almost daily in the news media.

The public is understandably fascinated with this new information, especially the findings that focus on the early development of the brain.

Contrary to the earlier belief that babies are born with a brain resembling a blank slate, scientists have discovered that learning begins before birth (babies are born recognizing their mother’s voice and music they heard while in the womb) and that children know more and learn faster than was ever thought possible. Scientists have also discovered that 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 by some to mean that babies and young children need extra stimulation during this “critical” period and that after four, you’ve missed the opportunity to develop the brain to its fullest potential. This is not only an oversimplification of the research; it is not true. There are two major misconceptions about the development of synaptic connections.

‘There is no proof that extra stimulation, over and above the natural interaction that takes place, is necessary or important for cognitive or social growth. In fact, too much activity can result in overstimulation and be damaging to a young child.’

The first misconception deals with the belief that synapses represent learning and the more you have, the better, and that these synapses need to be protected in some way, so you don’t lose them. It is true that the child’s brain develops trillions of synaptic connections in the early years. What is often not reported (and therefore not understood) is that the brain overproduces connections in the early years, and an important aspect of normal brain development is the pruning away of those that are inappropriate or not needed. For example, babies are born with cells that would allow them to pronounce the sounds of every language in the world. However, the connections for sounds of the language they hear every day are strengthened while the ones that are not used are pruned away. This allows children to adapt to and eventually speak the language of their parents or caregivers. An important part of learning is getting rid of connections!

The second misconception is that early, special and enriched environments are essential during critical periods to develop their child’s brain to its fullest potential. Hence, worried that they may miss the critical periods, parents provide their infants with black and white mobiles, play foreign-language or Mozart tapes, and provide educational games and software in order to make certain their children have the most enriched environment possible. Many scientists believe this extra stimulation is not necessary.

Part of the controversy over the importance of the environment on brain development arises from treating all stimulation and environmental input as the same. Stephen Meltzoff, the co-author of the book, The Scientist in the Crib, states that the important question is not “What is the effect of the environment on the brain?” but “What is the effect of a deprived environment, a normal environment and an enriched environment?” (Meltzoff, 2000).

Many studies have shown the devastating effects of the deprived environment. The ability to speak a spoken language is lost by about age ten if children–because of deafness or lack of exposure to language–do not learn to speak a language in the early years. Severely impoverished environments can result in stunted emotional growth, as reported in the studies of Romanian orphans. Fortunately, most children are not raised under severely deprived conditions. In an impoverished environment, the brain prunes too many connections.

What about the opposite end of the spectrum? Does an enriched environment somehow change the child’s development? Is it better? Can we really produce ‘super babies?’ Parents are barraged with products and services offering ‘brain stimulation for their babies and children. They are marketed to parents frantic that failing to introduce their young children to letter sounds and number concepts will doom their child’s success in later life. The fact is that the scientific evidence does not support these ideas. There is no proof that extra stimulation, over and above the natural interaction that takes place, is necessary or important for cognitive or social growth. In fact, too much activity can result in overstimulation and be damaging to a young child.

Does this mean that the environment is unimportant as some have suggested? Of course, it’s not. There are certain requisites for normal development. Using language as an example, it is obvious that for normal language development, human interaction with parents is crucial. Children need to hear a language to speak it. They are born capable of speaking any language, but they don’t make it up! Every baby and young child prosper in a warm, intimate relationship with a primary caregiver. They need models of appropriate social interactions and a physically and psychologically safe environment. But it appears they do not need extra stimulation for normal cognitive and social development.

The human brain is innately curious and designed to learn. Young children are driven to master their world. Given a normal environment and barring any serious problems, this will happen without a lot of intervention on the part of adults. Play is incredibly important for children. In the play, they have ownership, exploring their own interests with the support of adults. Activity is critical; children do not like to learn through passive input. Flashcards, workbooks, language tapes and ‘educational’ computer games are not only inappropriate; they often deprive children of the natural interaction with their world so important to development. What children need and enjoy is rich, varied input in natural settings. The opportunities for this type of input are everywhere, from taking a walk through the neighbourhood and talking about what you see to let the child help with cooking or sorting clothes. Reading to young children and teaching them songs and rhymes is the most appropriate introduction to reading available. It is interesting to note that these are things that most parents have always done. Parental intuition is not something to ignore!

Dr Pat Wolfe is a former teacher of Kindergarten through 12th grade, county office administrator, and adjunct university professor. Her major area of expertise is the application of brain research to educational practice. She is an award-winning author and has appeared on numerous programs.