Early Learning: for & against
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Why teach your baby early?
The period from birth to age eight - and especially, from birth to age three - is a critical time in baby brain development.
This is because the first years of life lay the neurological foundation for intellectual growth into adolescence and adulthood.
From the moment of conception, the neurons (nerve cells) of the brain multiply faster than any other cells in a baby's body.
The rapid pace of baby brain development continues into early childhood: at birth, the brain weighs 25 percent of its adult weight; by age one, 50 percent; by age two, 75 percent; and by age three, 90 percent.
The brain of an adult has over 100 billion neurons, the majority of which were formed during the first five months in the womb! Recent research suggests that new neurons can be created throughout life - but probably only in sufficient numbers to replace those that have died.
Each of the brain's neurons is connected to roughly 5,000 others. In general, the more dendrites (branches between neurons) and synapses (connections between neurons) the brain has, the greater its processing power. More pathways mean information can travel in a number of ways, opening the door to faster and more complex thinking.
This is true in the adult, but not in the infant. Your baby's brain actually has more synapses than yours - but only because it hasn't passed an important developmental stage, known as pruning, in which the brain deletes unneeded neural connections in the interests of organization and efficiency.
"Use it or lose it"
The process of pruning is illustrative of the high plasticity (adaptability) of young brains, which are literally sculpted by the environments in which they are raised. Scientific testing of how exactly experience shapes the brain has led to the theory of "critical periods" - specific time periods in which stimulation must occur, or the chance to develop normal functioning will be lost.
In a now-classic experiment, kittens blindfolded for several months after birth were left unable to see properly once the blindfolds were removed. Their brains had not had the opportunity to develop the neural pathways needed to process visual information. Likewise, babies with cataracts must have them removed within the first few months of life or suffer permanent visual impairment.
Nothing is more disastrous for baby brain development than a dearth of stimulation.
Likewise, a surfeit of appropriate stimulation will produce better-than-average neural circuitry.
In one study, rat pups were placed in one of two environments - an "enriched" one filled with toys and obstacles, or an "impoverished," empty one. After 80 days, the rats that had been stimulated were found to have brains with a heavier cerebral cortex (the part of the brain that controls memory and perception), larger neurons, and more intricate dendritic networks.
The same principle applies to baby brain development in humans. Scientists have discovered, for instance, that certain areas of the brain are larger and more developed in children who play musical instruments than in those who do not. These include the cerebellum, which processes rhythm and timing, and the corpus callosum, which acts as the conduit for communication between the brain's left and right hemispheres - vital for musicians coordinating their right and left hands.
Giving kids a Head Start
Education initiatives such as the US's Head Start and Early Head Start are producing measurable cognitive and emotional benefits in children - benefits that can last into middle and even high school. Some of the Head Start programs, which focus on helping disadvantaged children, have produced boosts in IQ equivalent to eight IQ points. In general, the younger intervention is staged, the more significant and long-lived the effects. Full-day Head Start programs for infants have been shown to produce IQ gains lasting into adolescence.
The question is: why limit such programs to disadvantaged children?
Waiting until school to begin providing consistent intellectual stimulation to a child is no disaster. But in doing so, we miss a unique opportunity to enhance baby brain development.
So how do you make the most of that critical time in your child's life?