There’s a brand new series just coming off the press– picture books that seek to show rather than tell how we as parents can provide an enriched environment for our children from birth on up. In this day of jump starts for babies (Baby Einstein, for example) Eli’s Books, by Jeanette Gray & Elizabeth Gray Earl, come as a welcome respite from the emphasis on teaching toddlers facts that will help them get ahead in school. The enrichment I refer to has to do with developing the child, body, mind, and spirit in ways that will lead to excellence for all of life. It involves not just book learning, but whole-person development.Commonly-Held Notions That Just Aren’t Spot on
I am qualified to write about this since I have twice been a new mother. I remember well my attitudes and thought processes when my babies were in the crib and later beginning to toddle around the house. I frequently assumed an attitude of waiting. Waiting until he can talk. Waiting until she can walk. Waiting for naptime. Waiting for bedtime! Waiting until kindergarten or preschool to arrive. Here are some commonly held ideas that we as parents probably could stand to revisit:
- 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 her 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 only 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)
So along come Eli’s Books and they beautifully illustrate activities that create really important opportunities for behind the scenes development of brain and body, mind and spirit.What’s Going on Behind the Scenes?
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? Again I am going to push you towards getting 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 the 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)
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 he 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 will 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.
Eli’s Books are an easy read. (Smile). They show parents providing rich opportunities for their child 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 for learning from events that will lead to making wise choices. All the things that really matter in educating a child happen outside of memorization of facts in the classroom. 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.