It’s a wonderful life
One of the best things about being a godmother to my best friend’s daughter is that I frequently receive photos of quite possibly one of the happiest babies I’ve ever known. In practically every shot, she’s bright-eyed and beaming like a dolphin and I can’t help thinking how lucky she is to have parents who adore her, love to play with her and enthusiastically encourage her every small step of the way (although she’s not quite walking yet!).
One of my favourite pics is of her daddy strumming the ukele while she sits on his lap, her doll-like hand reaching out to touch the strings. My pal and I joke that with musical influences like these, how could she not grow up and join either an indie rock band or a symphony orchestra? But even if my goddaughter is not the next Lady Gaga, the amount of stimulation and positive reinforcement this little baby girl is getting from her mum and dad augers very well for her future.
Dr Judy Willis is an authority on the neuroscience of how the brain learns best and will be presenting at Young Minds in June. Here in a recent interview on the ABC Lateline program, Dr Willis explains why educational engagement with children like Coco, virtually from the time they are born, is so worthwhile in terms of their later life. The following is an edited version of that conversation.
“The earlier the brain experiences the opportunity to hear words, to develop patterns of what’s familiar, what goes together, the better … the more efficiently it will learn later.
“[So] the earlier the better in terms of parents talking with their children, making eye contact, giving them experiences, because the brain … from the time it’s born [is] organising the world into patterns and categories. And it’s those that get stored as networks in the brain, so later in school and in life, new information, if it doesn’t find anything in the brain to link up with, to code with, it doesn’t really stay.
“As an alternative to parents, who already have good bonds … and because certainly the bond of love and affection and trust and one-on-one is ideal with parents, but … if parents can’t provide the mental manipulation and stimulation and encouragement … then having an outside opportunity like a preschool or a daycare centre with people who will provide that stimulation is the next best thing.
“What’s most important to a child is the sense that they are safe and can experiment and can be curious and will be taken care of in a learning environment … if a child feels ‘I’m in a place where I can explore, try things out, say things that I think could be right, but it is all right to make mistakes,’ in that type of learning environment with the trust it can build, that’s going to cause the most positive brain changes.
“Just think of a child’s curiosity, right? When you give a child a big present and it’s in [a] box … they love the box, right? They have this wonderful imagination and curiosity. They can take things all over their imagination, which literally means the information is stimulating lots of places in the their brain. That’s the type of brain preparation that’s great for school and it’s great for life.
“The brain is very plastic and the more we start building those categories of structures, those neuronal networks and patterns the better … Kids may not have equal educational experiences once they get to school. They may not have the same attendance as other classmates. But the background that they’ve constructed, the brain that they’ve built, with early experiences, will be there and can be picked up on in later years … That network is there.”