Thursday, August 20, 2009

Brain Development in Babies and Toddlers: Implications for learning

I wrote a post on 'Brain Development and the Early Weeks of Life' in September last year just after the birth of our 5th grandchild (pictured left aged 8 months). The main thrust of my previous post was to stress just how complex the young brain is and our need to understand this if we are to enhance the development of our children in the preschool years. I wrote at the time that:

  • A baby is born with a brain made up of cells with enormous potential that are undergoing massive change right from birth.
  • What any child is born with is just the beginning; it's a framework for development and learning. The child's environment has a big impact on how brain cells are connected or “wired” to each other.
  • The young child's experiences, sensory stimulation, interaction with others, language, the love and care she receives and so on, will all have a huge impact on development.
  • If children are deprived of a stimulating environment the development of their brains suffer.
  • Early stimulation establishes the foundations for children’s later learning; it influences how children will learn, and how effectively they will learn.
  • Early physical and emotional stress has an impact on brain development.
Professor Alison Gopnik (UC Berkeley) has just written a helpful opinion piece in the New York Times (15th August 2009) titled 'Your Baby Is Smarter Than You Think' that raises similar issues and shares some recent research support for her arguments.
She suggests that "new studies, demonstrate that babies and very young children know, observe, explore, imagine and learn more than we would ever have thought possible." She cites three recent pieces of research including one she has been responsible for with colleagues. These three studies use some of the many new methodologies designed to assess the learning and attention of babies.

Study 1 - Researchers Fei Xu and Vashti Garcia (Department of Psychology at the University of British Columbia) hypothesised that children as young as 8 months could understand probabilities. When babies were shown a box full of mixed-up Ping-Pong balls (mostly white but with some red ones mixed in), they were more surprised and looked longer and more intently, when four red balls and one white ball out of the box which would be unexpected given the greater number of white balls in the box.

Study 2 - Professor Laura Schulz and Elizabeth Baraff Bonawitz at M.I.T. demonstrated that when young children play, they are also exploring cause and effect. They introduced preschoolers to a toy and effectively showed one group how it worked but not the other. When the exper
imenters gave the toys to the children those who had seen how it worked played less with it than those who hadn’t. They concluded that this demonstrates the desire of babies to explore things.

Study 3 - Alison Gopnik and Tamar Kushnir discovered that preschoolers could use probabilities to learn how things work and that this let them imagine new possibilities. They demonstrated this by using yellow and blue blocks that appeared to make a machine light up when placed over it. When given the chance to choose a block, children who couldn’t yet add or subtract, were more likely to choose the high-probability yellow block (the one that they'd seen light the machine up more) to try to light the machine.

Professor Gopnik concludes that it is easy to take the wrong lessons from this research. Some will assume that this means we should be pushing babies and toddlers faster, providing them with lessons, programs, focuses and structured learning environments. But the brain and the intelligence of the preschooler is different to that of adults who do learn well (often) in focused, planned and systematic ways, with goals, outcomes, KPIs and so on.

But babies are different. When we say young children can’t pay attention for long, we really mean that they can’t concentrate on the things that we want them to or think they should focus on. Professor Gopnik reminds us that babies have trouble concentrating on just one thing and shutting the rest out. As a result we tend to underestimate what babies can do, but now we know that babies are actively engaged thinking and solving problems without being goal-oriented. She comments:
“Babies are captivated by the most unexpected events. Adults, on the other hand, focus on the outcomes that are the most relevant to their goals….Adults focus on objects that will be most useful to them….children play with the objects that will teach them the most. In our study, 4-year-olds imagined new possibilities based on just a little data. Adults rely more on what they already know. Babies aren’t trying to learn one particular skill or set of facts; instead, they are drawn to anything new, unexpected or informative."

You can read Professor Gopnik's complete article (here)

Other Resources

I've written a lot about play and other ways to stimulate children in the early years. The labels on the sidebar of the blog will help to find these, but you can access a series of posts I did on play here.

For a more detailed discussion of the brain's development as well as problems with development, there is an interesting introduction that I found helpful - Fertile Minds, by J. Madeleine Nash in Time magazine, Feb 3, 1997.

Dr Kim Oates gave a series of three public lectures that I hosted at New College in 2006 that might also be of interest, especially the first talk titled "The amazing early years of life" that can be downloaded as a pod cast here. I also found these very helpful.

Early Childhood Cognition Lab at M.I.T. (here)


Deanna Lyles said...

Very interesting post! It is truly amazing what a child's mind is capable of. I'm looking forward to reading more of your posts.

Trevor Cairney said...

Nice to here from you Deanna, I look forward to hearing from you again on this blog. Best wishes, Trevor

Judy H. Wright aka Aunite Artichoke said...

Hello from beautiful Montana:

Glad to have connected with you. It seems we have much in common and lots to share.

My website is and has lots of free articles, reports, teleclasses etc. on family relationships.

Trevor Cairney said...

Nice to hear from you Judy, it does seem like we have some common interests. I enjoyed looking at your site and finding out more about what you do. Thanks for 'dropping by', Trevor

childfont said...

I liked this very interesting and looking forward to read some more posts of the same kind . . .