Inside: Understand how your child’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 child’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 child’s brain development.
But, what does the research really say about how best to support your child’s brain development?
The Environment Shapes the Brain
A series of studies in the late 1990s showed that the environment can change how the brain develops in rats. 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, was giving 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 authors of the original study 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 it would naturally in the wild, but still wasn’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 child 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 — something that approximated the normal wild environment of the rat.
It is possible that in our attempt to “enrich” our children’s brains with more structured experiences earlier in their lives that we have deprived them of their natural wild environment — the one that is actually optimal for brain development. We have to ask ourselves, have we put our kids in a 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 even 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 child 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, that is normal for our species, but which of language (e.g. French or German) you experience depends on your culture.
Unordinary experiences are any kinds of experiences that vary 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 in part to overstimulation of the brain at an early age.
Unordinary experiences can enhance brain development too. Children who learn two languages at an early age 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 — so what kinds of experiences does a developing brain need in early life for optimal development?
Four Ways to Nurture Your Child’s Brain Development
1. Play Outside As Much As Possible
Ask yourself what is a ‘normal wild environment’ for a human child?
Two things that most likely came into your mind is 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 the direct effects that play has 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 all of the ways that free play in nature is good for our children’s brains, we do know that this is what the brain expects.
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.
For more on how to get your child outside more, read this: How to Do It: 5 Tips to Get Your Child to Love Nature Activities.
2. Limit “Brain” Toys and Screens
Research shows that technology can negatively affect cognitive functioning and yet, children can also learn from technology.
The most common thing we limit in our family are electronics, toys included. Ironically, toys that stimulate and essentially entertain your child actually takes away from natural learning and creativity.
As far as electronic screens (phones, tablets, TV) I try to limit both how much time my son spends watching screens and also what type of shows or game 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.
3. Engage and Connect
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.
As a species, we are inherently social. In the Harvard Life Study, an 80-year longitudinal study, the one factor that predicted both a healthy and happy life was social support and relationships.
Researchers were surprised at just how powerful a predictor social relationships were in predicting not only mental well-being but physical health as well.
Dr. Waldinger, a director of the study, said in his TED talk, “good relationships don’t just protect our bodies; they protect our brains…loneliness kills, it’s a powerful (of a predictor) as smoking and alcoholism.”
You Are the Best ‘Toy’ for Your Child
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 compared to rats who were not well-groomed.
There is a similar finding from research with premature infants from a study done about 20-years-ago.
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 IQ’s, 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. Above all ask yourself — What does the brain expect?
If it’s an unordinary experience, is it something that 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, 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 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.