Baby’s brain development not tech-dependent, scientists say

SEATTLE — Scientists have learned a lot about the preschool brain over the past decade. But unless they read medical journals, most parents and others who care for their young children have yet to hear about those discoveries.

Researchers at the University of Washington and a group of nonprofit partners are trying to change that by making outreach and education a bigger part of their work.

A variety of new efforts have begun: from a Facebook page with photos of parents and kids demonstrating learning activities to a free online mini-university explaining the science in a way that everyone can understand and apply it.

“It surprises me so much when I give a talk, how much of the information is brand new,” said Pat Kuhl, director of the Institute for Learning & Brain Science at the University of Washington.

The message she wants all parents to receive is that baby’s brains come ready to learn, and what they need most is interaction and conversation with the adults in their lives.

Even before kids can talk, their brains are getting ready for communication.

A lot of learning is going on before the age of five but parents need to know they can all teach their own children without any special equipment or expensive classes, Kuhl and others emphasized.

“Kids can thrive on being talked to and read to,” she said.

The American culture has become too focused on classes and lessons for young children, said Molly O’Connor of Thrive by Five Washington, a public-private partnership that promotes early learning.

What kids really need is one-on-one time with parents and caregivers, she said.

For example, parents should explain to babies what is going on around them and ask their opinions. Make up simple games by saying things like: Do you hear that? Make up stories, comment on the books you are reading, have your child help you cross off things on your to do list, and turn on and off the lights.

O’Connor calls it taking advantage of everyday moments.

For those who want a better understanding of the science, Kuhl and her colleagues at the University of Washington are creating a new series of online learning modules that explain baby brain development and what to do with that knowledge.

The 20-minute online classes, filled with photos, videos, charts and information, cover topics such as learning through imitation. Their goal is to create a total of 50-60 learning modules over the next five years.

In March, a program called Vroom began reaching out to parents in South King County through posters, a cell phone app, a website and a Facebook page. Brief parenting tips are distributed in multiple languages.

The Vroom website — as well as public service cards and other messages scattered around the community — include more than a hundred ideas to get babies learning: Talk about your childhood when you’re feeding your baby. Repeat the sounds children make back to them and encourage them to do the same with your sounds.

How this information is shared with today’s stressed out parents is important, O’Connor said.

“Parents are always feeling behind or not good enough. That can be super discouraging,” she said. “It needs to be simple and positive.”

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