Preparing the Brain to Learn Begins Before Birth
I have twice been a new mother. Granted, it was decades ago, but I still remember my attitudes and thought processes when my babies were in the crib and later beginning to toddle around the house. In those days, I was not thinking about preparing the brain for learning. In fact, I remember my sister and I sitting on the floor with our two year olds trying to get them to learn color names by holding out a crayon and saying the color slowly and distinctly.

At that point, the babies just wanted to bite the sweetly-scented crayons. Sheepishly we decided to put the project on hold and wait until our toddlers got a bit older before trying it again. It seemed in those days that I often assumed an attitude of waiting. Waiting until he could talk. Waiting until she could walk. Waiting for naptime. Waiting for bedtime! Waiting until kindergarten or preschool to arrive so learning could begin. Here are some commonly-held ideas that we as parents probably could have done without:

•    Significant learning begins with enrollment in school
•    Naptime is a way to keep him occupied so I can get something done
•    As is bedtime
•    Play is another way to keep him occupied so I can get something done
•    Outdoor play is a bit more dangerous; dangers lurk in the form of ticks, mosquitoes, rabid squirrels, nails inadvertently dropped into the grass, sunburn, skinned knees, a fall from the slide, a kick in the shin from a “friend” at play
•    Daycare or preschool are the best places for acquiring social skills because that’s where peers are found
•    Sesame Street and other programs will give my child the jump start he needs
•    Reading books will provide all the exposure my child needs (safely)
•    Significant development starts when my child can make conversation
•    Activities such as baking are too advanced to involve my preschooler in and are way too messy!
•    Development of the brain really is mostly about learning stuff in school
•    The biggest value in outdoor play is that my child will get some exercise and fresh air (“fresh” depending of course on where you live)

Fast forward to the new century. I can’t say how often a friend or I have said, “I sure wish I knew all this when my kids were little!” Maybe we learn on our kids and then practice with our grandkids! At any rate, all the reading and studying during the past several years has revealed to me just a little bit of what is going on behind those wide-eyed baby eyes.

What’s Developing During Infancy?

So much is going on inside a tiny baby even before birth that starts the process of brain development which not only impacts performance in school, but most importantly, impacts the direction his life will take. WOW! How can this be? I suggest you find a copy of Carla Hannaford’s book, Smart Moves because I am SO tempted to start typing out lengthy quotes from her book. If you’re going to read that much, you might as well read her and not me! After all, she’s the recognized expert on neurophysiology as it relates to education and the development of the child. Here are some important ideas taken from her book:

•    “Thought, creativity and learning arise from experience. As we experience, we bring in information and build the neural networks that allow us to use that information so we may better understand the world and how to thrive in it. A major component of experience is sensory input from our environment via our eyes, ears, taste buds, nose and skin; and from our bodies via nerve receptors on each muscle and organ.” (29- 30).
•    “Our whole body is designed as a fine tuned sensory receptor for collecting information.” (page 30)
•    “Our sensory apparatus is so vital to learning that it begins developing within a couple of months after conception, in utero.” (30)
•    “The first sensory system to fully develop and myelinate by five months after conception is the vestibular system, which controls the sense of movement and balance.” (33)
•    “The vestibular system is already visible in a two month old embryo. There is much activation of the head as the fetus moves in the amniotic fluid, then as the child goes from early movements and crawling to walking and running. The stimulation from these movements is crucial to brain development.” (35)
•    “Whenever touch is combined with the other senses, much more of the brain is activated, thus building more complex nerve networks and tapping into more learning potential.” (41)
•    “In a three dimensional environment, such as outdoors, the eye is in constant motion gathering sensory information to build intricate image packages necessary for learning. The brain integrates these image packages with other sensory information like touch and Proprioception to build a visual perceptual system.” (47)

What Does All This Really Mean?

I wish I’d read this book when my kids were babies, only it was not written yet. During the years when I was being a good mommy according to the light I had, (but also was marking time until they got big enough to “learn”) I wish I had appreciated how critical certain experiences are for good brain development. Outside free play in which the child is experiencing many different textures, colors, smells, sensations, in which she can run, jump, climb, roll, and even fall down and maybe even bleed and need stitches – all this combines to create a rich background for brain development and for neural growth. Movements such as these connect various areas in the brain and establish neural pathways that will enhance learning. Most importantly, movement and the sensory experiences we described encourage the development of the frontal lobe and its communication with the other parts of the brain. The frontal lobe is the center for complex thought, for weighing options, for body control, for reasoning. Pretty much this is the area that will help a child grow to be a person who thinks before he acts, who can reason, make informed choices, and so forth. This lobe controls fine motor coordination, simultaneous processing of information, and high level planning. 

We as parents can provide rich opportunities for our children to experience nature first hand, to enjoy family activities usually considered “too old” for toddlers, to discover the properties of objects in the environment, and to learn from events that will lead to making wise choices. All the things that really matter in educating a child happen outside of memorizing facts in school. To do well in school and in life, kids must know how to think, how to discover, how to evaluate, how to act with care. They need to learn perseverance, responsibility, honesty and all the traits that will make them into people who take full advantage of what school and then life have to offer.

How We Can Encourage the Process of Brain Development.

While a baby's mind and body are designed to naturally develop in all the best ways, we as parents can support that development. Some do’s and don'ts:

1-    Do provide regular active play outdoors that includes cross lateral movement (such as running, crawling, skipping or hopping), balancing movements (such as walking on a curb or beam on the ground, climbing on boulders, etc.), and spinning or swinging
2-    Do take time to comment about everything you are doing, even if she is not talking yet
3-    Do let the child participate in the household routine as soon as he can sit up (no sharp knives or hot burners of course)
4-    Do teach her how to follow the routines and use the tools for each project appropriately
5-    Do provide ample time for him to play with found objects such as boxes, laundry baskets, pots and spoons
6-    Do provide guidelines and consistent consequences gently as a means of helping her learn to reason, evaluate and make good choices
7-    Don’t rely on technology to teach or entertain: limit TV, videos, computers as means of input, opting instead for 3-dimensional objects and hands-on experiences
8-    Don’t become so overly cautious that you keep him in a container most of the time (stroller, walker, highchair, bouncy seat, playpen, carrier, car seat, crib) instead of letting him down on the floor to scoot or crawl every day
9-    Don’t be over protective – let her learn, with you there for support, how to move and manage her body
10-    Don’t provide many toys that wind up and do the action all by themselves so that he only watches it go
11-    Don’t underestimate what your child is absorbing – a lot is going on that she cannot verbalize 
12-    Don’t forget to laugh and have fun!

Sarah Major, CEO of Child1st Publications, grew up on the mission field with her four siblings, all of whom her mother homeschooled. As an adult, Sarah homeschooled a small group of children in collaboration with their parents, and has taught from preschool age to adult. Sarah has been the Title 1 director and program developer for grades K-7, an ESOL teacher, and a classroom teacher. As an undergraduate student, Sarah attended Wheaton College in Wheaton, Ill. and then received her M.Ed. from Aquinas College in Grand Rapids, MI. In 2006 Sarah resigned from fulltime teaching in order to devote more time to Child1st. The company is excited this month to release Eli's Books, a series of picture books that model positive child-parent relationships and active play. In her spare time Sarah enjoys gardening, cooking, pottery, quilting, and spending time with her family.

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