Baby brains and ping-pong

How many times have you heard a baby described as a thirsty sponge or a blank slate? The problem with these analogies is that they downplay the active role parents and other adults have in helping a baby develop into the happiest, healthiest, smartest person she can be.

Babies are born with billions of neurons. Their brains grow through connections that form between the neurons – 700 per second in the early years. These neural connections form the brain’s architecture, on which all future learning rests. What stimulates the growth of a strong and sturdy brain architecture? Experience.

We know that the baby brain grows best through a process called “serve and return.” Just like in tennis or ping-pong, the action is two-way. The problem with the sponge and blank slate analogies is they imply that babies learn simply by receiving information. In fact, it’s the serve and return, the back and forth, that triggers brain development.

That’s why we at Best Beginnings are so excited about the potential for Babies on Track; it shows Alaska parents and children engaged in serve and return as part and parcel of everyday activities.

There’s a wonderful passage in “Neurons to Neighborhoods: The Science of Early Development,” that describes why these early serve and return experiences are so important.

What is learned at the beginning of life establishes a set of capabilities, orientations to the world, and expectations about how things and people will behave that affect how new experiences are selected and processed.

The infant who has learned that he can engage his parent in play and make objects do what he wants them to do acquires a fundamental belief in his ability to affect the world around him.

The toddler who has learned that the people she depends on for comfort will help her when she is distressed is more likely to approach others with empathy and trust than the toddler whose worries and fears have been dismissed or belittled.

The preschooler who has routinely cuddled into an adult’s lap and read books before going to bed is more likely to enter kindergarten with a keen interest in reading. The child who has missed these experiences may have a hard time recapturing them later in life. In short, getting off to a good start in life is a strategy for increasing the odds of greater adult competence.

In contemporary society, even the best parents need community support to ensure their children start school ready to succeed. But theirs is a big responsibility and encouraging them to be the best parents they can be is what Babies on Track is all about.