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It’s brain science, not rocket science


As the science of early learning reinforces the extreme importance of the first three years of life, parents and caregivers can become anxious that they may not be doing everything “right.”

But there’s good news, says Sarah Lytle, director of education outreach for the world-renowned Institute for Learning & Brain Sciences (I-LABS) at the University of Washington. “Research shows that it’s the early interactions with a loving adult that matter most.”

It’s not gadgets or technology, new theories or expensive materials, that engage a baby or young toddler. They’re wired to respond to the voices and faces and loving hands of their parents, family members and familiar caregivers. They begin to explore the big, wide world from the security of that love.

Take language learning, for instance. Infants prefer “infant-directed speech” or “parentese” that adults the world over naturally use with babies. The sing-song tone, drawn-out vowel sounds and longer spaces between words capture their attention and help them pick out the individual sounds, Lytle explains. (Baby talk is using sounds like “goo-goo, gaga,” which is fine on occasion, although it’s better to use real words in real sentences most of the time.)

Babies learn best if we go back and forth with them, leaving time for their “googly, googly” responses, smiles and laughs before we say something else.

Both quantity (lots of words spoken to the baby) and quality (the variety of vocabulary and concepts) are important. “Instead of just saying ‘table,’ say something like ‘rectangular wooden table. It’s a rectangle because it has four sides. This block has four sides on top,’” Lytle suggests.

How is a baby going to understand that?

This is where I-LABS’ magnetoencephalography (MEG) brain imaging machine sheds light. It’s the only one in the country that measures infant brain activity as they listen to language. In the first 6 months, only the listening area of the baby’s brain lights up. But at 6 months, and even more at 12 months, the speaking area of the brain also lights up. “The baby is building the practice wiring and activation for speaking, even before he can form real words,” Lytle says. The more words they hear — in any language — when they are very young, the better children will master speaking, reading and writing all of their lives. And decades of research shows that simply reading to your child and sharing picture books with her is the cheapest, coziest, most effective way to make her “smarter.”

Social and emotional skills and cognitive (thinking) skills develop in the same way and at the same time as language proficiency. Without knowing it, the baby and young toddler will begin to learn empathy, imitation, a concept of self, memory and problem-solving. As she moves into her second year of life, she’ll show affection to familiar people, play pretend games, begin to say single words and then short sentences, follow one- and two-word directions and “nurture” stuffed animals or dolls.

Lytle uses the phrase “back and forth” every third sentence: “Talk to them, play with them, go back and forth; be responsive to their needs and attuned to what they want and when they might want to change activities,” she suggests.

In all of these interactions, babies and young toddlers learn who they can rely on to have their needs met so that they are free to explore and grow. “The research doesn’t show whether children 2 and younger do better with a few or many caregivers. The important thing is not the number of relationships, but whether they are close,” Lytle says. It doesn’t even matter if the significant adults speak different languages, as babies are able to distinguish the sounds of many languages (a facility they lose as they zero in on their native tongue).

Using flash cards or any system where children must “perform” is not the best way to teach them. “Kids learn best through experiences,” Lytle concludes.  “Everyday moments turn into brain growth moments.”


By the numbers: Words and screens

  • Number of words children in the most verbal households hear in a year: 11 million

  • Number of words children in the least verbal households hear in a year: 3 million

  • Gap between the number of words that low-income children in a small Rice University study heard and the number of words children from professional families heard in the first four years of life: 30 million

  • Daily hours of television and other screen time the American Academy of Pediatrics and the National Institutes of Health recommend for children 2 and younger:  0

  • American children 2 and younger who have used a mobile device: 40 percent

  • American children 2 and younger who watch TV daily (Kaiser Family Foundation study): 43 percent


Love. Talk. Play.

Local experts have put together a terrific list of tips to help parents of babies and toddlers turn everyday moments into early learning opportunities. Go to lovetalkplay.org, and click on “Activities.”

For example, here are ideas for a trip to the grocery store.

Love: Keep me close to you so that I feel safe. Look me in the eyes when you talk with me.

Talk: Talk with me about how things look, feel, smell and sound. Ask me what my favorite stuffed animal or doll would like to eat.

Play: Let’s play a game and find things in the store that are blue or start with the letter M. Help me count and weigh the apples.

Call 621-5584 to order materials offline.

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