Reading seems easy and automatic for those of us who are good readers. We usually don’t remember how we learned to read or how long it took. It’s a little like driving a car: you have to do lots of things well, all at the same time, and continuously make adjustments. It seems simple for experienced drivers, but think about how many things you have to teach someone who is just learning to drive.
In an even more complicated way, reading is a tough learning task for the brain.
Early environments and experiences have an enormous impact on how the brain develops. The basic structures of the brain are present at birth, but most of the fine-tuning will happen throughout life. The brain never stops learning and changing, even for adults. What is so exciting about the years from birth to 5 is that the young brain is absolutely primed for rapid learning, and this is the age during which the greatest amount of brain development takes place.
This is really good news: it means that every newborn child can adapt well to his or her environment, no matter what country they are from, what city they are born in, or what language they hear. Your baby’s brain adaptability creates a wonderful opportunity for you to provide high-quality, stimulating experiences that foster healthy brain development that will serve your child for a lifetime. Paying attention and responding to your baby’s needs; having loving conversations with your little one; giving them a variety of experiences and activities – all are “brain food” to a child.
How to Help Your Baby’s Brain Develop Well
- First, RELAX. It’s the patterns of experience over time that are most important, not one event or another. Your baby’s future reading brain is built sound by sound, word by word, and book by book, through very brief interactions throughout your day, across weeks, months and years.
- It doesn’t take lots of money and all the latest toys or computer games to support healthy brain development. Some of the most important things your young child needs are FREE – attention, love and security from you, coupled with a variety of simple learning and play experiences each day.
- Babies are born learning! From the very first days, your baby will be responding to you, and you need to respond to your baby, quickly and consistently. Brain scientists call this “serve and return,” like a tennis game: you “serve” something to your baby – a word, a smile, a hug – and your baby “returns” something back. It may not be obvious, but during those first few weeks, your baby is registering everything that is happening and responding to it in some way. All these experiences and responses shape brain connections. If you think of helping to build your baby’s brain as if you are building a house, those brain connections are the building blocks and the wiring. Brain scientists actually talk about “brain architecture” for this reason.
- Strong language skills set the foundation for future thinking, learning and school achievement. So have A LOT of conversations with your young child. Even infants can engage in conversations. With a baby, you’ll start to notice that when you speak, your baby looks at you. He may make a sound back, watching to see what you say next. This “back-and-forth” can go for a while and it’s a building block for future conversations with words.
- As babies grow, around age 2 and up, use bigger words that are descriptive. Young children enjoy this kind of language, and you will be amazed at their capacity to learn these words. For example, you could describe a cookie as “delicious!,” a dress as “beautiful!,” a dog as “gigantic!” Use expression in your voice, facial expressions and gestures to emphasize the meaning of the words.
- Be careful not to use language just to direct your child, such as, “no,” “sit down,” or “stop that.” While these words are important for managing a young child and keeping her safe, meaningful conversations and rich, varied vocabulary are most important for building a strong language foundation. Ask your child simple questions about what she sees, feels, hears and thinks. Follow your child’s lead and show interest in the activities, people and ideas she is interested in.
- Language skills and future reading success go hand-in-hand. Read to your child from infancy, picking books that are age-appropriate. As your child gets older, ask questions about the story to engage him and show that you are interested in what he is thinking. Play silly word games so your child learns about sound patterns. At ages 3 and 4, give your child alphabet blocks or magnets and plenty of opportunity for drawing and pretending to write.
- And don’t forget about the importance of PLAY. Play is the best way for young children to learn about how the world works, how to solve problems, how to be creative and how to get along with others. Everyone needs highly developed, creative problem solving skills and the ability to work well with others. For young children, learning through language and play is the best way to build the brain power they will need throughout their lives.