Why read to young children? Science answers …

When you wonder if you really need to read to your babies because you don’t think they understand anything you’re saying ─ or you wonder if you really need to read daily to your growing child because of all the other competing demands for your time, consider the latest science on early child development. A working briefing paper issued by the National Scientific Council on the Developing Child[1] covers five important findings about early child development. I’m going to put into my own words what I read in the paper but give you the citation if you want to check out the original (phrases or sentences in quote marks below are direct from the briefing paper):

Finding #1: The brain is building critical circuitry. The brain’s motherboard or “architecture” gets constructed, of course, before birth. This construction continues into adulthood. The stakes are especially high in the early years because this is when there is so much circuitry being built. In the first few years, for example, a huge number of “neural” connections (like highway systems in the brain) are forming in a short period of time. In this period, scientists tell us there are “700 new neural connections forming every single second!” After this period of rapid growth, these connections start to be reduced through something called “pruning.” The purpose of pruning is to help the brain circuits become more “efficient.” The various circuits get built out in a specific order too: pathways for vision and hearing are the first to develop, next come early language skills, and then higher cognitive functions. These later more complex circuits build on the earlier simpler circuits. Building a strong foundation for all these vital functions that we will need throughout our lives then is clearly critical.

Finding #2: Both genes and experience are at play. Scientists tell us that both genes and experience shape the developing brain. They interact through a process known as “serve and return.” This sounds to me like a tennis metaphor. Children are programmed naturally to reach out from their earliest years to whomever is around them (parents, grandparents, aunts and uncles, siblings, other caregivers), serving the proverbial tennis balls in the form of facial expressions, babbling and other types of vocalizing, and gestures. The folks receiving the “tennis balls” served to them, then return back with a range of vocalizing and gesturing.This is the best thing for the child’s developing brain, when there is a good “return back.” The worst is when there is no return back or when the return back is “unreliable” or “ inappropriate.” In these situations, the brain’s “architecture” is not able to form as the genes normally dictate. When this happens, the child is set up for later learning and behavior problems.

Finding #3: The best chance for optimum brain development is early.  If a child’s brain misses the boat for optimum development in the early years, the later years are not likely to make up the difference. Scientists tell us that “the brain’s capacity for change decreases with age. The brain is most flexible, or “plastic,” early in life to accommodate a wide range of environments and interactions, but as the maturing brain becomes more specialized to assume more complex functions, it is less capable of reorganizing and adapting to new or unexpected challenges.” Scientists give us the example of “windows in time.” In a baby’s first year, the  parts of the brain that can detect different sounds are already becoming specialized to the language the baby is exposed to; at the same time, even in that first year the brain is starting to lose the ability to recognize different sounds that are found in other languages. Although we know that adults can learn new languages throughout their lifetime, scientists tell us that the brain circuits for language become “increasingly difficult to alter over time.” The early flexibility that young children have make it easier and frankly more effective to influence a baby’s developing brain architecture than to have to “rewire parts of its circuitry in the adult years.”

Finding #4: Significant interweaving occurs among cognitive, emotional, and social capacities in the brain. In the child’s early years, the brain must accommodate a growing fabric of functions to prepare for later success in school, the workplace and community. These “emotional and physical health, social skills, and cognitive-linguistic” (language) functions operate together in a rich tapestry orchestrated by the brain. The building blocks for this tapestry begin in the child’s early years.

Finding #5: The young brain faced with unrelieved, long-term stress management will be shaped, in its very architecture, by these toxic stressors. Scientists tell us that “toxic stress” damages the developing brain. This in turn can lead to “life-long problems in learning, behavior, and physical and mental health.” The most toxic stress to the developing brain comes from chronic stress such as “extreme poverty, repeated abuse, or severe maternal depression.” If there is not adequate adult support to help the child “buffer” the toxic stress, then “toxic stress becomes built into the body by processes that shape the architecture of the developing brain.” This does not mean that all stress is a bad thing for the developing brain. There are “more moderate, short-lived physiological responses to uncomfortable experiences.” These are known as “positive stresses” and viewed as “an important and necessary aspect of healthy development.”

Key take-a-ways: Children are developing their brain-motherboards from birth (and before) to age 5 – and of course later. They need to build as robust a brain architecture as possible, to face well the coming challenges of school, workplace, and community. There will be good (well, acceptable) stresses that come along in those early years. These so-called “positive or tolerable stresses” can be accommodated in healthy brain development. For some children, however, there will be “toxic stresses” that come from chronic, unrelieved stress management situations and these are truly dangerous for fragile, developing brain systems. The best thing we can do is to start helping all children from day one to build strong circuitry in their brains, and engage fully with them in the game of “serve and return.” What we do every single day as a parent, brother or sister, aunt or uncle, grandparent, or caregiver matters. Talking with our kids, hugging them, playing games, and reading to them will have a tremendous impact on their health and wellbeing. There’s important science behind this.

[1] Quoted sections and information taken from “The Science of Early Childhood Development” and the Working Paper series from the National Scientific Council on the Developing Child. <www.developingchild.harvard.edu/library/>