Inside: Understand how your baby’s brain develops best in a wild environment and what kinds of experiences are best for a developing brain.
Have you ever found yourself in the toy aisle wondering if some toys are better for your baby’s brain? Or, have you thought about music or language lessons for the sake of their brain development?
If so, you are definitely not alone. Parents are faced with deciding which brain games, toys, classes, exercises, and activities will best”enrich” their baby’s brain development.
What does the research really say about how best to support your baby’s brain development?
How the Environment Shapes Your Baby’s Brain Development
A series of studies in the late 1990s showed that the environment can change how rats develop brains. They found that rats who lived in “enriched” environments had larger brain structures than rats living in “standard environments” (e.g., Kempermann, Kuge, & Kane, 1997).
The “enriched” rats literally experienced neurogenesis (the growth of new brain cells) in regions of the brain associated with memory and thought organization.
This was an amazing finding– it showed that our environment can actually shape the brain. But what did the researchers mean by an enriched environment?
Enriched, in this case, gave the rats some semblance of a normal rat’s life, which would be pretty varied and active. Mimicking the activities of running and searching for food in the wild.
The enriched rats had an exercise wheel, a nest, tunnels, and toys in their cages.
The standard rats were in a plain cage with no toys, tunnels, or exercise wheels.
The original study’s authors stated that “… the type of enrichment offered in this study still represents a deprived condition compared to conditions in the wild.”
In other words, giving captive rats stuff to do in their cage would help their brains develop more like they would naturally in the wild, but they still weren’t as good as rats who grew up in the wild.
Unfortunately, the message of these first studies got twisted. The media ran with the idea that the environment can shape the brain (true) and that “enriched” environments are better (not exactly true).
“Enriched” became synonymous with stimulation. Enter in brain games, toys, activities, earlier academics, earlier competitive sports — etc. The message became to do more and to do it earlier, and you’ll be helping your baby develop a bigger, better brain.
What was completely missed was that the researchers were simply trying to create a more enriching experience within a captive environment that approximated the rat’s normal wild environment.
It is possible that in our attempt to “enrich” our children’s brains with more structured experiences earlier in their lives, we have deprived them of their natural wild environment — the one that is actually optimal for brain development. We must ask ourselves, have we put our kids in virtual “enriched” cages?
Ordinary and Unordinary Experiences and Brain Development
Neuroscientists have their own terminology for this idea of a normal wild environment versus something unexpected: experience-expectant (what the brain expects from nature or ordinary experiences) or experience-dependent (unordinary experiences).
Ordinary experiences (experience-expectant) for the rats would be living in the wild — those rats would have the biggest brains of all– bigger than the enriched rats.
Ordinary experiences for humans include anything that is “human species normal,” in other words, what we as a species all have — light, air, nutrition, family groups, language, etc.
A baby growing up in a grass hut in the wilderness and a child growing up in a townhouse in the suburbs of Chicago have an equal chance for normal brain growth, given they both have access to good nutrition, loving families, language, green space and anything else that is the same across humans.
Unordinary experiences (experience-dependent) are experiences that differ across cultures. For example, the brain expects to experience language, which is normal for our species, but which language (e.g., French or German) you experience depends on your culture.
Unordinary experiences are any kind of experience that varies depending on where and how you grow up.
These unordinary experiences can either harm the brain or enhance brain growth (or be neutral).
Unordinary experiences that harm brain growth would be nutritional deprivation, early trauma, and child abuse (research has shown a clear cause and effect here).
But harmful experiences are not limited to those extreme cases– for example, the brain does not expect to be exposed to television with its quick shifts between scenes– it is not a natural optical experience.
The brain also doesn’t expect highly stimulating toys with flashing lights and loud sounds. I believe that some of the attention problems we see in so many kids may be traced partly to overstimulation of the brain at an early age.
Unordinary experiences can enhance brain development, too. Children who learn two languages early have bigger brains and better cognitive capacity in some areas. There is also evidence that early music lessons boost brain development.
Back to our original question, what kinds of experiences does a developing brain need in early life for optimal development?
Four Ways to Nurture Your Baby’s Brain Development
1. Take Your Baby Outside As Much As Possible
Ask yourself what a ‘normal wild environment’ is for a human child.
Two things that most likely came into your mind are play and nature. These are essential parts of what the brain expects and needs to develop. This is a child’s wild environment.
Just recently, a study showed that children who grow up with more green space around them (measured by satellite imagery) have a 55% less chance of developing mental disorders later in life.
While most studies are correlational, researchers are beginning to track play’s direct effects on the brain in animals, especially free and unstructured play. In fact, just one half-hour of free play can significantly change the expression of genes and activate the whole neocortex.
While we may not understand how free play in nature is good for our children’s brains, we do know that this is what the brain expects.
Stepping outside can instantly quiet a fussy baby — try walking in a stroller or a baby wrap. Try putting your baby down for tummy time on the grass — just watch them not eat it. Babies are naturally fascinated by the natural world.
And it’s good for mood too. Some of my most relaxing memories of early motherhood were time spent outside — in sand tables on the porch, in hammocks on the deck, in the woods collecting sticks, and by the lake skipping rocks.
2. Limit “Brain” Toys and Screens in the First Two Years of Life
Research shows that technology can negatively affect cognitive functioning, especially in early life.
The most common things we limit in our family are electronics and toys. Ironically, toys that stimulate and essentially entertain your baby actually take away from natural learning and creativity.
As far as electronic screens (phones, tablets, TV), I try to limit how much time my preschool son spends watching screens and what type of shows or games he is watching (slower-paced and more realistic shows are better for cognitive function). For more on how to limit screentime and to teach your children to regulate their own screentime, see my post on managing screentime) and for older kids, how to balance the pull of video games with real-world challenges.
Instead, choose toys that inspire creativity and natural exploration, find some ideas in this post: How to Create a Montessori Play Area for Your Baby and Toddler
3. Engage and Connect: You are Your Baby’s Best “Toy”
This is the most important feature of a human’s ‘wild’ environment, and one that the brain expects is love and connection with attachment figures — e.g., the parents.
One catchphrase many developmental psychologists use is — “You are the best toy for your child.” Talking, singing, holding, and interacting with your child is the natural space for children to learn and grow.
Research with rats has shown that how a mother rat physically cares for her young (how much she grooms and licks them) can change how her offspring responds to stress throughout their life. Baby rats who were groomed and licked more had epigenetic changes that led to better life adjustment than those who were not well-groomed.
There is a similar finding from research with premature infants from a study: Premature infants who had been assigned to the Kangaroo Mother Care (KMC), in which parents would hold their infants in skin-to-skin contact for nearly 24 hours per day, had higher IQs, increased gray matter, increased maturation in the cortex, and reduced hyperactivity and aggression when they were young adults than the infants who did not receive KMC.
So, don’t forget yourself as a necessary part of your child’s normal wild environment. They will learn so much from simply being with you. Going on nature walks with you. Being held in your arms. You are their wild and natural place to be. No brain toys needed.
4. As your baby grows, ask yourself — What does the brain expect?
If it’s an unordinary experience, is it something your child would enjoy that fits his or her temperament?
But children don’t need these for perfectly wonderful brain development.
Ask yourself — is this a human species normal environment for my child? Is it something the brain expects? If not, ask yourself, would it help or harm?
And then choose wisely. Think about what your child likes and what they are naturally drawn to, and engage with them in those things. Because of our overscheduled lives, childhood stress is significantly on the rise. I believe it is because we have taken our kids out of their human-species normal wild environment.
So, don’t feel like it is necessary to do ALL THE THINGS. All your kids really need is you, friends, healthy food, a bit of fresh air, and to play — freely.
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