"Let Kids Play" By Perri Klass, M.D.

Doctors should prescribe playtime for young children, the American Academy of Pediatrics says.

By Perri Klass, M.D. Aug. 20, 2018

The most famous painting of children at play is  “Children’s Games,” the 1560 work by Pieter Bruegel the Elder of a town square in which children from toddlers to adolescents (scholars have counted 246) are playing a range of timeless games. There are dolls and marbles and tiddlywinks, ball games and climbing games and riding games (scholars have counted 90 or so). The children are the only ones in town, and their activities offer a kind of taxonomy of play.

But some worry that our current culture is less friendly to play, and that children may not be getting the chance to explore all its possibilities. To try to address that, the American Academy of Pediatrics released a policy statement on Monday titled “The Power of Play: A Pediatric Role in Enhancing Development in Young Children.”

The statement characterizes play as intrinsically motivated, involving active engagement and resulting in “joyful discovery.” It summarizes extensive developmental and neurological research on play, and tries to tease out some of the specific developmental discoveries in peek-a-boo (repetitive games provide “the joy of being able to predict what is going to happen”) and Simon Says (builds impulse control and executive function). It also says that doctors should encourage playful learning for parents and infants by writing a “prescription for play” at every well-child visit in the first two years of life.

It’s a values statement because many who study play feel that it is under siege, even as new research emphasizes its importance in children’s development.

“We’re in a climate where parents are feeling like they need to schedule every minute of structured time, and 30 percent of kindergartens offer no recess,” said Dr. Michael Yogman, chairman of the A.A.P. committee on psychosocial aspects of child family health and the lead author of the statement. To some, he said, “play is seen as irrelevant and old-fashioned.”

Dr. Benard Dreyer, the director of developmental and behavioral pediatrics at New York University School of Medicine and a past president of the American Academy of Pediatrics, said, “The old saying is, play is the work of children. Play is the way they learn and the way they develop. It’s important to understand how all of us, and especially parents, can encourage play.”

“Kids develop 21st-century skills in play,” said Dr. Yogman, who is chief of the division of ambulatory pediatrics at Mount Auburn Hospital in Cambridge, Mass. These include social and emotional skills and executive function, “skills that are crucial for adults in the new economy, that help them collaborate and innovate.”

A fundamental job in pediatric primary care is to strengthen the parent-child relationship, he said, and play is important in that area as well. Even with a very young child, he said: “When a 3-month-old smiles and a parent smiles back, those kinds of turn-taking activities are not only far from trivial,” but are actually important for developing language and social-emotional skills, such as taking turns.

The stable relationships with parents and other caregivers that are built through these interactions are also important for helping children navigate stress and trauma and preventing what we have come to call “toxic stress” from damaging the child’s development.

And the policy statement goes into detail on recent research showing that play can affect the developing brain, both in its basic structure and in function, with changes that can be traced to play showing up at the molecular and cellular level, as well as at the level of behavior and executive function.

“I think there’s a real pediatric role in pointing out the real profound importance of play on many levels,” Dr. Yogman said. “Parents are looking to us for what do I do with my child, how many activities do I get them in,” he said. “I’m really thrilled the academy was willing to endorse the idea of a prescription for play.”

“It’s not about fancy toys,” he said. “It’s about common household items that kids can discover and explore,” like putting spoons and plastic containers on the floor “and bang them and see what the child does with them.” Parents often tell him, “Gee, I always believed in that. Nice to have it validated,” he said.

“The goal is not to make parents feel guilty or to lord it over them as an expert,” Dr. Yogman said, but rather to look for moments during an office visit that a parent might build on, and to talk about what is coming up developmentally for the child — which is a basic imperative of primary care in pediatrics.

And there are ways to work play into the medical visit, like blowing bubbles to help fearful children, or using hand puppets to demonstrate what’s going to happen in an exam. It may help to take the family out to the waiting room and see what the child does with the toys there.

The statement is advocating for a balanced curriculum in prekindergarten that does not ignore playful learning and doesn’t regard time spent in the block corner as somehow beside the point, Dr. Yogman said. Playful learning means supporting young children’s intrinsic motivation to learn and discover, instead of imposing extrinsic motivations like test scores.

What parents need to do, Dr. Dreyer said, is be there to help their children with “scaffolding.” That means “you don’t control the play for your child, but when you see they’re ready to go to the next step, support that.”

For example, you wouldn’t do the puzzle for the child, but you might point out a clue to help figure out where the piece might fit. Giving parents positive reinforcement for what they are already doing is what helps most, he said, not criticizing them for what they aren’t doing.

I’ve spent a great deal of my own time in pediatrics thinking about how we can encourage parents to read with their children as part of the primary care visit. And I recently wrote about efforts to “prescribe” going to play in parks.

But can we successfully “prescribe” reading, playing, going outside and all the other essential pieces of a healthy busy childhood?

There are crucial underlying themes that connect all these different ideas; the importance of interacting with children, responding to their cues and questions, the value of the old-fashioned kind of face time, with parents and with peers, and the importance of helping kids find a variety of experiences that are not all about screens and screen time in a world that is increasingly virtual for both parents and children.

“Reading is also having kids imagine what their role would be, which is playful,” Dr. Yogman said. “Getting outside and getting physical exercise is playful.”

“A ‘prescription for play’ I might hand to parents at the end of a visit is really just saying, it’s O.K. to go back and rely on your common sense about where you think you can share some of the joy as your child is exploring the world,” he said. “The goal is really validating what I think parents might come to on their own but are feeling pressured by a culture that says no, they really need to do special video games on an iPad or they need to have every minute of structured time.”

“Play is the most important part of childhood,” Dr. Dreyer said. “It’s how they develop emotionally, cognitively and in language — the statement comes out to help pediatricians and parents understand the importance and how to even do it better.”

Republished by the NY Times. View the article at the NY Times website here.

"Singing With My Grandbaby" By Paula Span

Republished by the NYTimes.

Researchers say that singing is among the most meaningful activities we share with children.

I can’t explain the first song I crooned to my sleeping granddaughter, just hours old and bundled like a burrito in a hospital blanket and striped cap. Not Brahms, which would have been classy. Not a Yiddish folk tune, though I’d claimed the name Bubbe, Yiddish for grandmother.

No, it was a ballad I probably hadn’t deliberately listened to or thought much about in decades: “Surfer Girl,” by the Beach Boys. Maybe it welled up because of the lyrics (“made my heart come all undone”).

But lyrics can’t account for another oldie that materialized more recently: a 1957 doo-wop hit, “Mr. Lee,” by a girl group called (I had to look this up) The Bobbettes. It’s catchy, though hardly profound, and my granddaughter liked that little hiccup in the chorus. But even as I was singing, I wondered: Where did that come from?

Polling other grandparents about what they sang first, I heard about lullabies and children’s songs in several languages, about tunes learned from people’s own grandparents. “You Are My Sunshine” proved popular. Inspiration came from the Beatles, Dean Martin, Bob Marley and Barney.

My friend Dale might take the obscurity prize: She sang her still-tiny grandbaby “Does Your Chewing Gum Lose Its Flavor on the Bedpost Overnight?” — a British pop novelty. Dale isn’t old enough to remember when it hit the charts in the United States in 1961; she learned it at camp, a lifetime ago. But here it was again, as her children gaped.

Some folks planned what to sing, but for many of us this music simply emerged, unbidden and unexpected. It made me wonder whether barely remembered refrains get stored in some compartment of our brains, waiting years for emotional moments to release them.

Researchers study such things, the neurocognitive aspects of music, so I tried out my hypothesis on a couple of leading scientists. They gently disabused me. No, there is no nook in the hippocampus where we stash old ditties; music engages many parts of our brains.

“It’s not like the brain is a hard drive, with one folder where we store all this stuff,” said Samuel Mehr, principal investigator of the Music Lab at Harvard. (His first song to his new son was Paul Simon’s “American Tune.”)

But my conversation with Dr. Mehr, and with the psychologist Sandra Trehub of the University of Toronto, reinforced what many grandparents intuitively know: Singing to children, as people around the world do, is among the most meaningful activities we share with them.

Scientists have learned a lot about babies and music in the decades since I was a new parent, using inventive lab experiments that measure babies’ gaze, their behavior, even their heart rates and stress hormones. They report that tiny infants show sensitivity to rhythm and pitch and can distinguish familiar melodies.

“Their memory for music is shocking,” Dr. Mehr said. Across class and culture, “they’re incredibly perceptive listeners.”

His work has demonstrated that 5-month-olds whose parents sing them a song for just a week or two remember that melody eight months later. When they encounter strangers who sing to them in the lab, they pay more attention to someone singing the familiar melody than a different song, even one with the same words and rhythms.

Similarly, at 11 months, babies exposed to a song for one to two weeks will choose an object (a small stuffed lion, say) offered by a stranger singing the familiar song, preferring it to one presented by a stranger whose song they don’t know.

Infants pay more attention to singing than to speech, Dr. Trehub has shown, and that can pay off.

In a dim lab, 7- to 10-month-olds will listen to recorded singing for an average of nine minutes before they start fussing or crying, twice as long as they attend to recorded speech. “It’s a terrific distraction from a distressing event,” Dr. Trehub said. “You start singing and they’re completely transported.”

Babies confront a rush of strange new sights, sounds and experiences. That may explain why they respond so strongly to repetition. When we sing the same songs over and over, “infants have expectations about what comes next,” Dr. Trehub explained. “When their expectations are fulfilled, that’s rewarding and comforting.”

Eventually, they not only feel soothed by music but can use it to comfort themselves. I’m the Thursday day care provider for my granddaughter Bartola — a pet name that’s an affectionate nod to former Mets pitcher Bartolo Colon — and she frequently looks (and sounds) betrayed when I put her down for a nap. But then I often hear her singing about barnyard animals or twinkly stars, settling herself into sleep.

Dr. Mehr’s theory is that singing communicates that a particular grown-up — it could be a grandparent as well as a parent, and in many cultures probably is — is paying attention, something enormously important to vulnerable babies.

“It’s a signal of who’s a friend, a member of my group,” Dr. Mehr said.

Which helps explain why it doesn’t much matter how well or poorly you sing. It’s the attention, the feeling, that kids respond to. “You put all the gush into it and it’s the emotive quality that comes across, not whether you hit the right notes,” Dr. Trehub said.

Bartola and I have moved on to favorites by the Temptations and Pete Seeger, and to songs with gestures. Just as Dr. Trehub has written, singing brings us “pleasure, comfort, shared feelings and common purpose.”

And maybe other benefits.

"Mr. Rogers Had a Simple Set of Rules for Talking to Children"By Maxwell King

Republished by the Atlantic. View the article at the Atlantic website here

The TV legend possessed an extraordinary understanding of how kids make sense of language.

For the millions of adults who grew up watching him on public television, Fred Rogers represents the most important human values: respect, compassion, kindness, integrity, humility. On Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood, the show that he created 50 years ago and starred in, he was the epitome of simple, natural ease.

But as I write in my forthcoming book, The Good Neighbor: The Life and Work of Fred Rogers, Rogers’s placidity belied the intense care he took in shaping each episode of his program. He insisted that every word, whether spoken by a person or a puppet, be scrutinized closely, because he knew that children—the preschool-age boys and girls who made up the core of his audience—tend to hear things literally.

As Arthur Greenwald, a former producer of the show, put it to me, “There were no accidents on Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood.” He took great pains not to mislead or confuse children, and his team of writers joked that his on-air manner of speaking amounted to a distinct language they called “Freddish.”

Fundamentally, Freddish anticipated the ways its listeners might misinterpret what was being said. For instance, Greenwald mentioned a scene in a hospital in which a nurse inflating a blood-pressure cuff originally said “I’m going to blow this up.” Greenwald recalls: “Fred made us redub the line, saying, ‘I’m going to puff this up with some air,’ because ‘blow it up’ might sound like there’s an explosion, and he didn’t want the kids to cover their ears and miss what would happen next.”

The show’s final cuts reflected many similarly exacting interventions. Once, Rogers provided new lyrics for the “Tomorrow” song that ended each show to ensure that children watching on Friday wouldn’t expect a show on Saturday, when the show didn’t air. And Rogers’s secretary, Elaine Lynch, remembered how, when one script referred to putting a pet “to sleep,” he excised it for fear that children would be worried about the idea of falling asleep themselves.

Rogers was extraordinarily good at imagining where children’s minds might go. For instance, in a scene in which he had an eye doctor using an ophthalmoscope to peer into his eyes, he made a point of having the doctor clarify that he wasn’t able to see Rogers’s thoughts. Rogers also wrote a song called “You Can Never Go Down the Drain” because he knew that drains were something that, to kids, seemed to exist solely to suck things down.

In 1977, about a decade into the show’s run, Arthur Greenwald and another writer named Barry Head cracked open a bottle of scotch while on a break, and coined the term Freddish. They later created an illustrated manual called “Let’s Talk About Freddish,” a loving parody of the demanding process of getting all the words just right for Rogers. “What Fred understood and was very direct and articulate about was that the inner life of children was deadly serious to them,” said Greenwald.

Per the pamphlet, there were nine steps for translating into Freddish:

  1. “State the idea you wish to express as clearly as possible, and in terms preschoolers can understand.” Example: It is dangerous to play in the street. 
  2. “Rephrase in a positive manner,” as in It is good to play where it is safe.
  3. “Rephrase the idea, bearing in mind that preschoolers cannot yet make subtle distinctions and need to be redirected to authorities they trust.” As in, “Ask your parents where it is safe to play.”
  4. “Rephrase your idea to eliminate all elements that could be considered prescriptive, directive, or instructive.” In the example, that’d mean getting rid of “ask”: Your parents will tell you where it is safe to play.
  5. “Rephrase any element that suggests certainty.” That’d be “will”: Your parents can tell you where it is safe to play.
  6. “Rephrase your idea to eliminate any element that may not apply to all children.” Not all children know their parents, so: Your favorite grown-ups can tell you where it is safe to play.
  7. “Add a simple motivational idea that gives preschoolers a reason to follow your advice.” Perhaps: Your favorite grown-ups can tell you where it is safe to play. It is good to listen to them.
  8. “Rephrase your new statement, repeating the first step.” “Good” represents a value judgment, so: Your favorite grown-ups can tell you where it is safe to play. It is important to try to listen to them.
  9. “Rephrase your idea a final time, relating it to some phase of development a preschooler can understand.” Maybe: Your favorite grown-ups can tell you where it is safe to play. It is important to try to listen to them, and listening is an important part of growing.

Rogers brought this level of care and attention not just to granular details and phrasings, but the bigger messages his show would send. Hedda Sharapan, one of the staff members at Fred Rogers’s production company, Family Communications, Inc., recalls Rogers once halted taping of a show when a cast member told the puppet Henrietta Pussycat not to cry; he interrupted shooting to make it clear that his show would never suggest to children that they not cry.

In working on the show, Rogers interacted extensively with academic researchers. Daniel R. Anderson, a psychologist formerly at the University of Massachusetts who worked as an advisor for the show, remembered a speaking trip to Germany at which some members of an academic audience raised questions about Rogers’s direct approach on television. They were concerned that it could lead to false expectations from children of personal support from a televised figure. Anderson was impressed with the depth of Rogers’s reaction, and with the fact that he went back to production carefully screening scripts for any hint of language that could confuse children in that way.

In fact, Freddish and Rogers’s philosophy of child development is actually derived from some of the leading 20th-century scholars of the subject. In the 1950s, Rogers, already well known for a previous children’s TV program, was pursuing a graduate degree at The Pittsburgh Theological Seminary when a teacher there recommended he also study under the child-development expert Margaret McFarland at the University of Pittsburgh. There he was exposed to the theories of legendary faculty, including McFarland, Benjamin Spock, Erik Erikson, and T. Berry Brazelton. Rogers learned the highest standards in this emerging academic field, and he applied them to his program for almost half a century.

This is one of the reasons Rogers was so particular about the writing on his show. “I spent hours talking with Fred and taking notes,” says Greenwald, “then hours talking with Margaret McFarland before I went off and wrote the scripts. Then Fred made them better.” As simple as Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood looked and sounded, every detail in it was the product of a tremendously careful, academically-informed process.

"The Magic of a Cardboard Box" By Alexandra Lange

Republished by the New York Times. View the article at the New York Times website here

By Alexandra Lange

On April 20, Nintendo released a new line of accessories for its best-selling Switch game console. Rather than being digital add-ons, they were physical ones: punch-and-fold parts engineered to turn the Switch console into a piano, a fishing rod or a robot. All are made of cardboard.

On March 4, Walmart ads shown during the Oscars centered on shipping boxes. The writer and director Dee Rees, nominated for “Mudbound,” created a 60-second ad in which the threat of bedtime gets incorporated into a sci-fi wonderland a little girl has imagined inside a blue cardboard box.

In June 2014, Google handed out kits for a low-cost virtual reality headset to be used with a smartphone. The headset was named Cardboard, for what it was mostly made of, and users assembled the units themselves.

In April 2012, “Caine’s Arcade,” an 11-minute short featuring a boy named Caine Monroy, was widely shared on the internet. Caine had spent his 2011 summer vacation building an arcade in the front of his father’s East Los Angeles auto-parts store out of the boxes the parts came in. He had the freedom to create an environment because cardboard comes cheap, and his father gave him space.

These 21st-century storytellers turned to cardboard for the same reasons that children have long preferred the box to the toy that came in it: cardboard is light and strong, easy to put up, quick to come down and, perhaps most important, inexpensive enough for experiment. Cardboard constructions can be crushed, painted, recycled and stuck back together. Cardboard furniture can be adjusted as children grow, and cardboard creations become more sophisticated as children gain skills: It is as malleable as the body and the mind.

Technology companies’ embrace of cardboard’s cool suggests something parents and teachers never forgot: The box is an avatar of inspiration, no charging required. Cardboard is the ideal material for creativity, and has been since the big purchase, and the big box, became a fixture of American postwar homes.

Corrugated cardboard boxes were introduced in the 1880s, and slowly replaced wooden crates as the shipping method of choice. Robert Gair, a paper bag manufacturer in Brooklyn, realized that he could slice and crease paper on his machines in a single step. A box could quickly be cut out and scored, creating a flat blank ready to be assembled as needed, the same construction method exploited by Google and Nintendo. Because flattened boxes were easier to ship and distribute, manufacturers could buy them in bulk, assemble, and then ship their own product to consumers.

As household objects grew larger, the play potential of those boxes increased. The purchase of a new washing machine was a cause for celebration in my neighborhood as a child, as it meant access to a new playhouse in somebody’s yard. Dr. Benjamin Spock praised the cardboard box as an inexpensive alternative to a ride-on car or a readymade cottage. In 1951, Charles and Ray Eames mocked up a version of the packing boxesfor their Herman Miller storage furniture with pre-printed lines for doors, windows and awnings: When the adults bought a bookshelf, their kids would get a free toy.

Cardboard was considered such a wonder material during this era that Manhattan’s Museum of Contemporary Craft (now the Museum of Arts and Design) devoted a 1967-1968 exhibition, “Made with Paper,” to the medium. With funding from the Container Corporation of America, the curator Paul J. Smith turned the museum galleries into a three-dimensional paper wonderland. The CCA also funded a cardboard playground created by students at the Parsons School of Design that included pleated trees, an enveloping sombrero and a movable maze for children to explore.

James Hennessey and Victor Papanek’s “Nomadic Furniture,” published in 1973, was part of a renaissance in DIY instruction, one that emphasized the cardboard’s open-source bona fides, as online instructions for making your own Google Cardboard did. The “Nomadic” authors demonstrated how to create an entire cardboard lifestyle, one that could be tailored to different sizes, ages and abilities.

Cardboard sets you free from the average, as Alex Truesdell discovered when she began to design furniture with children with disabilities. Truesdell, inspired by another 1970s cardboard carpentry book, developed play trays, booster seats, high chairs and other assistive devices made of corrugated cardboard that could help children with disabilities participate fully in society. As founder of the Adaptive Design Association, Ms. Truesdell was named a 2015 MacArthur Fellow for her work. Her organization offers classes and consultation in design and methods at no and low cost, and expects participants to pass on their knowledge. Cardboard, as a material, wants to be free.

Cardboard’s central role in childhood has not gone unnoticed: in 2005, the cardboard box was inducted into the National Toy Hall of Fame. “We were particularly motivated by the exceptional qualities that cardboard boxes hold for inspiring creative, open-ended play,” says Christopher Bensch, vice president for collections and chief curator at the Strong National Museum of Play in Rochester. Nirvan Mullick, the filmmaker who made “Caine’s Arcade,” went on to found a nonprofit group, Imagination.org, that organizes an annual “global cardboard challenge” — one taken up by over a million kids in 80 countries.

At a time when toys have become ever more complex and expensive, it is worth returning to the box, seeing it not as trash but as a renewable resource for play.

For my daughter’s seventh birthday, she requested a cardboard-themed party. (I swear, I had nothing to do with it.) “Cardboard creations” is a highlight of “choice time” at her school, where kindergartners and first-graders have an end-of-day craft session with shoeboxes and paper towel rolls.

We gave up recycling for several weeks before the party and accumulated an embarrassingly large pile in the center of the living room. When the kids arrived, I waved them toward the boxes and bins of glue sticks, washi tape, paint, wrapping paper scraps and stickers.

“Make whatever you want,” I said, and they did.

"What's Going On In Your Child's Brain When You Read Them A Story?" By Anya Kamenetz

By Anya Kamenetz

Republished by the nprED. View the article at the nprED website here

"I want The Three Bears!"

These days parents, caregivers and teachers have lots of options when it comes to fulfilling that request. You can read a picture book, put on a cartoon, play an audiobook, or even ask Alexa.

A newly published study gives some insight into what may be happening inside young children's brains in each of those situations. And, says lead author Dr. John Hutton, there is an apparent "Goldilocks effect" — some kinds of storytelling may be "too cold" for children, while others are "too hot." And, of course, some are "just right."

Hutton is a researcher and pediatrician at Cincinnati Children's Hospital with a special interest in "emergent literacy" — the process of learning to read.

For the study, 27 children around age 4 went into an FMRI machine. They were presented with stories in three conditions: audio only; the illustrated pages of a storybook with an audio voiceover; and an animated cartoon. All three versions came from the Web site of Canadian author Robert Munsch.

While the children paid attention to the stories, the MRI, the machine scanned for activation within certain brain networks, and connectivity between the networks.

"We went into it with an idea in mind of what brain networks were likely to be influenced by the story," Hutton explains. One was language. One was visual perception. The third is called visual imagery. The fourth was the default mode network, which Hutton calls, "the seat of the soul, internal reflection — how something matters to you."

The default mode network includes regions of the brain that appear more active when someone is not actively concentrating on a designated mental task involving the outside world.

In terms of Hutton's "Goldilocks effect," here's what the researchers found:

In the audio-only condition (too cold): language networks were activated, but there was less connectivity overall. "There was more evidence the children were straining to understand."

In the animation condition (too hot): there was a lot of activity in the audio and visual perception networks, but not a lot of connectivity among the various brain networks. "The language network was working to keep up with the story," says Hutton. "Our interpretation was that the animation was doing all the work for the child. They were expending the most energy just figuring out what it means." The children's comprehension of the story was the worst in this condition.

The illustration condition was what Hutton called "just right".

When children could see illustrations, language-network activity dropped a bit compared to the audio condition. Instead of only paying attention to the words, Hutton says, the children's understanding of the story was "scaffolded" by having the images as clues.

"Give them a picture and they have a cookie to work with," he explains. "With animation it's all dumped on them all at once and they don't have to do any of the work."

Most importantly, in the illustrated book condition, researchers saw increased connectivity between — and among — all the networks they were looking at: visual perception, imagery, default mode and language.

"For 3- to 5-year-olds, the imagery and default mode networks mature late, and take practice to integrate with the rest of the brain," Hutton explains. "With animation you may be missing an opportunity to develop them."

When we read to our children, they are doing more work than meets the eye. "It's that muscle they're developing bringing the images to life in their minds."

Hutton's concern is that in the longer term, "kids who are exposed to too much animation are going to be at risk for developing not enough integration."

Overwhelmed by the demands of processing language, without enough practice, they may also be less skilled at forming mental pictures based on what they read, much less reflecting on the content of a story. This is the stereotype of a "reluctant reader" whose brain is not well-versed in getting the most out of a book.

One interesting note is that, because of the constraints of an MRI machine, which encloses and immobilizes your body, the story-with-illustrations condition wasn't actually as good as reading on Mom or Dad's lap.

The emotional bonding and physical closeness, Hutton says, were missing. So were the exchanges known as "dialogic reading," where caregivers point out specific words or prompt children to "show me the cat?" in a picture. "That's a whole other layer," of building reading Hutton says.

In an ideal world, you would always be there to read to your child. The results of this small, preliminary study also suggest that, when parents do turn to electronic devices for young children, they should gravitate toward the most stripped-down version of a narrated, illustrated ebook, as opposed to either audio-only or animation.

"In Lullabies, a Chance for Parent and Child to Bond" By: Perri Klass, M.D.

By Perri Klass, M.D.

Republished by the NY Times. View the article at the NY Times website here

When you sing a lullaby to your baby, you convey love and language and dreams of the future — and also, of course, you are trying to help your baby to a more immediate future of being asleep.

Singing helps calm both the baby and the parent, experts say, and creates a bedtime ritual to signal a transition from the day’s activities.

Carnegie Hall’s Weill Music Institute created a lullaby project to help mothers bond with their babies. Tiffany Ortiz, the manager of the project, said it started in 2011 with a pilot at Jacobi Medical Center in the Bronx, where staff members noticed that some teenage parents were having trouble attaching to their children. It has expanded across New York City, with artists working with parents at different sites, including high schools, hospitals, clinics, shelters and the Rikers Island jail, and is now being replicated nationally and internationally.

Teaching artists work with parents, who draft a letter which speaks to their hopes and dreams for the child, Ms. Ortiz said, and the lyrics emerge from those messages. “Then there’s a discussion about the musical side of it, how they want it to sound,” she said. “Usually, parents will start to hum.” After the lullaby is created, it is recorded for the parent to keep, to refer to, to sing again and again.

“I am surprised by how rich and complicated parenting is, and how much music making in parenting is that way too,” said Emily Eagen, a musician and songwriter who has been a teaching artist in the program since 2011.

When the project started, Ms. Eagen was pregnant. She is now getting her doctorate, and does research on lullabies from around the world, noting that lullabies can reflect many of the complexities of taking care of children, “how hard it is to exercise a certain amount of structure, how painful it is that they have to go through something hard,” like the separation and solitude associated with going to sleep.

Anita Collins, a music educator who researches brain development and music, said that babies are born with relatively undeveloped sight but, under most circumstances, with perfect hearing.

“Babies’ auditory processing or hearing sense is actually the most important sense they have for the first two years of their lives, the sense that gathers the most information about their world,” said Dr. Collins, an associate fellow in music, mind and well-being at the University of Melbourne, Australia, and the author of the forthcoming book “The Lullaby Effect.”

On April 20, the Carnegie Hall project released “Hopes and Dreams,” a recording of 15 original lullabies written by parents in New York from 2011 to 2015, performed by a range of artists, including Joyce DiDonato, Fiona Apple, Lawrence Brownlee and Patti LuPone. The goal of the project, though, is for parents to sing themselves, Ms. Ortiz said, to “embed more singing into daily practice and into parents’ lives, shatter that notion they might not be able to sing or they’re out of tune — for a child, their voice is going to mean the most.”

“Lullabies are very natural, but there’s not the perfect list of lullabies,” Dr. Collins said. “It’s about holding that child, looking them in the face, rocking them so they get the sense of the rhythm and the movement.”

Researchers have looked at the ways that infants respond to maternal singing. But in research studies comparing babies who were held and talked to or left in their cribs and sung to, she said, the babies went to sleep more quickly if they were sung to. “It’s about having that connection they feel when someone sings to them.”

Ms. Eagen recalled working with a mother who talked about the connection she felt to her baby when she saw the heart beating on the sonogram. “The doctor said, you’re the only one who will have this baby’s heart beat inside you, you’ll know each other’s heartbeat,” and that became the lullaby: I’m the only one who knows your heartbeat, and you’re the only one who knows my heartbeat.

For a family with a baby in the neonatal intensive care unit, “we wrote a song: ‘We’re waiting for you to come home, and we’ll celebrate with all the balloons in the world’ — we were all in tears,” she said. “It’s very transformative. You don’t know how much singing and writing a song is going to feel like you have agency — it really does make a difference to do this.”

Lullabies are important for the babies who hear them, but also for the parents who sing them, said Dr. Dennie Palmer Wolf, the principal researcher on the project, who put together research summaries on the importance of making music and on lullabies and wellness.

“Most of the mothers we worked with in New York live under very stressful conditions,” such as having a sick baby in the NICU or being homeless. “Restoring a sense of positive well-being is extremely important; unless parents have that to draw on, it’s hard to be consistent and emotionally available for their children.”

“For a lot of women it’s the first time they’ve written a song or even written poetry,” said Ms. Eagen. “They’re love songs and they’re work songs. There’s a lot in lullabies about letting yourself do the work of parenting, calming yourself down,” she said. “The mothers get a lot out of being able to sing the song to themselves as well as to the child.”

"MIT Brain Study: Back-And-Forth Talk Key To Developing Kids' Verbal Skills" By Carey Goldberg

By: Carey Goldberg
Republished by wbur. View the article at the wbur website here

New MIT research finds that for children's brain development, parents don't just need to talk to their kids — it's important to talk with them, in back-and-forth exchanges.

"What we found is, the more often parents engaged in back-and-forth conversation with their child, the stronger was the brain response in the front of the brain to language," said cognitive neuroscience professor John Gabrieli.

That stronger brain response, measured as children ages 4 to 6 lay in a scanner listening to simple stories, reflects a deeper, more intimate engagement with language, said graduate student Rachel Romeo.

On average, a child from a better-off, more-educated family is likely to hear 30 million more words in the first three years of life than a child from a less-well-off family.

That finding from 1995 helped explain some school achievement gaps. Now, the MIT researchers have illuminated how more talking actually changes a child's brain — and it's not just about the number of words a child hears, Romeo said. It's about interaction, the number of conversational "turns" that parents and preschool-aged children took while wearing recorders that taped their every word over two days.

And the effect didn't depend on parents' income or education, she noted, so it's not as if lower-income children are "doomed" to weaker verbal abilities.

"It seems to suggest, instead, that if they're provided with a rich verbal environment early in life, that that can predict great language and cognitive outcomes," Romeo said.

The finding is an important addition to work over the last 20-plus years on language development, said Dr. Marilyn Augustyn, a behavioral pediatrician at Boston Medical Center who was not involved in the study. She praised its use of brain scanners and recording devices to move the research forward.

A previous study turned up similar MRI findings on children who were read to by their parents, she said, "But what's really revolutionary about this study — and why I think it's really important — is it did both: It looked at the conversations, the words that children heard, and then also looked at the brain activation."

It strengthens a two-part message, she added. "One, we need to talk to our children from the moment they're born, and probably in utero. And two, that language needs to come out of a relationship — and that's what this study really cements. It isn't about streaming tape to a child through the course of a day with thousands and thousands of words, because those become meaningless. It's really about the relationship."

The next step in the research, Romeo said, will be to study an early intervention that gives toddlers more back-and-forth conversations.

"Obviously a two-year-old is not going to debate philosophy with you, but just a back and forth with them, whatever their capabilities are, is really valuable," she said.

The study found a broad range in how many conversational "turns" parents and child took in the course of an hour, from just 90 to as many as 400, Romeo said.

Families under more stress — say, with parents holding down more jobs — may have a harder time changing their conversational interactions with children, Gabrieli acknowledged. "But it is a thing — a very specific thing — that any of us could do with the right encouragement and support," he said.

Passively watched screens clearly do not bring the same sort of interaction as real conversation. But could a smart speaker use artificial intelligence to develop a child's brain much as a conversational parent would?

That question will require more study, the researchers said. Some initial research suggests that if devices can really respond to what a child says, they may offer added benefits, Romeo said.

But Dr. Augustyn is skeptical. Children can become very connected to technology, she said, but even if they develop some sort of relationship with a smart speaker, ultimately, "Alexa doesn't have a lap."

"Reading Aloud to Young Children Has Benefits for Behavior and Attention" By: Perri Klass, M.D

By: Perri Klass, M.D
Republished by the NY Times. View the article at the NY Times website here

It’s a truism in child development that the very young learn through relationships and back-and-forth interactions, including the interactions that occur when parents read to their children. A new study provides evidence of just how sustained an impact reading and playing with young children can have, shaping their social and emotional development in ways that go far beyond helping them learn language and early literacy skills. The parent-child-book moment even has the potential to help curb problem behaviors like aggression, hyperactivity and difficulty with attention, a new study has found.

“We think of reading in lots of different ways, but I don’t know that we think of reading this way,” said Dr. Alan Mendelsohn, an associate professor of pediatrics at New York University School of Medicine, who is the principal investigator of the study, “Reading Aloud, Play and Social-Emotional Development,” published in the journal Pediatrics.

The researchers, many of whom are my friends and colleagues, showed that an intervention, based in pediatric primary care, to promote parents reading aloud and playing with their young children could have a sustained impact on children’s behavior. (I am among those the authors thanked in the study acknowledgments, and I should acknowledge in return that I am not only a fervent believer in the importance of reading aloud to young children, but also the national medical director of Reach Out and Read, a related intervention, which works through pediatric checkups to promote parents reading with young children.)

This study involved 675 families with children from birth to 5; it was a randomized trial in which 225 families received the intervention, called the Video Interaction Project, and the other families served as controls. The V.I.P. model was originally developed in 1998, and has been studied extensively by this research group.

Participating families received books and toys when they visited the pediatric clinic. They met briefly with a parenting coach working with the program to talk about their child’s development, what the parents had noticed, and what they might expect developmentally, and then they were videotaped playing and reading with their child for about five minutes (or a little longer in the part of the study which continued into the preschool years). Immediately after, they watched the videotape with the study interventionist, who helped point out the child’s responses.

“They get to see themselves on videotape and it can be very eye-opening how their child reacts to them when they do different things,” said Adriana Weisleder, one of the authors of the study, who is an assistant professor in the Department of Communication Sciences and Disorders at Northwestern University. “We try to highlight the positive things in that interaction — maybe they feel a little silly, and then we show them on the tape how much their kid loves it when they do these things, how fun it is — it can be very motivating.”

“Positive parenting activities make the difference for children,” said Dr. Benard Dreyer, a professor of pediatrics at New York University School of Medicine and past president of the American Academy of Pediatrics, who was the senior author on the study. He noted that the critical period for child development starts at birth, which is also a time when there are many pediatric visits. “This is a great time for us to reach parents and help them improve their parenting skills, which is what they want to do.”

The Video Interaction Project started as an infant-toddler program, working with low-income urban families in New York during clinic visits from birth to 3 years of age. Previously published data from a randomized controlled trial funded by the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development showed that the 3-year-olds who had received the intervention had improved behavior — that is, they were significantly less likely to be aggressive or hyperactive than the 3-year-olds in the control group.

This new study looked at those children a year and a half later — much closer to school entry — and found that the effects on behavior persisted. The children whose families had participated in the intervention when they were younger were still less likely to manifest those behavior problems — aggression, hyperactivity, difficulty with attention — that can so often make it hard for children to do well and learn and prosper when they get to school.

Some children were enrolled in a second stage of the project, and the books and toys and videotaping continued as they visited the clinic from age 3 to 5; they showed additional “dose-response” effects; more exposure to the “positive parenting” promotion meant stronger positive impacts on the children’s behavior.

“The reduction in hyperactivity is a reduction in meeting clinical levels of hyperactivity,” Dr. Mendelsohn said. “We may be helping some children so they don’t need to have certain kinds of evaluations.” Children who grow up in poverty are at much higher risk of behavior problems in school, so reducing the risk of those attention and behavior problems is one important strategy for reducing educational disparities — as is improving children’s language skills, another source of school problems for poor children.

But all parents should appreciate the ways that reading and playing can shape cognitive as well as social and emotional development, and the power of parental attention to help children flourish. Dr. Weisleder said that in reading and playing, children can encounter situations a little more challenging than what they usually come across in everyday life, and adults can help them think about how to manage those situations.

“Maybe engaging in more reading and play both directly reduces kids’ behavior problems because they’re happier and also makes parents enjoy their child more and view that relationship more positively,” she said.

Reading aloud and playing imaginative games may offer special social and emotional opportunities, Dr. Mendelsohn said. “We think when parents read with their children more, when they play with their children more, the children have an opportunity to think about characters, to think about the feelings of those characters,” he said. “They learn to use words to describe feelings that are otherwise difficult and this enables them to better control their behavior when they have challenging feelings like anger or sadness.”

“The key take-home message to me is that when parents read and play with their children when their children are very young — we’re talking about birth to 3 year olds — it has really large impacts on their children’s behavior,” Dr. Mendelsohn said. And this is not just about families at risk. “All families need to know when they read, when they play with their children, they’re helping them learn to control their own behavior,” he said, so that they will come to school able to manage the business of paying attention and learning.

"Today, Go Say an Overdue Thank You. It’ll Make You Feel Better" By Tim Herrera

By Tim Herrera
Republished by the NY Times
. View the article at the NY Times website here

A few years ago The New York Times ran a story that said expressing gratitude — even if you’re faking it — can measurably improve your overall happiness and life satisfaction, and it can sometimes even improve the happiness of those around you. Imagine!

I’ve been thinking about this a lot because in March I encouraged you to knock off the one thing from your to-do list that has been hanging over your head.

Hundreds of readers wrote me emails and tweets sharing the one thing they accomplished, and a few themes emerged: taxes (of course), job and career stuff, financial tasks, some house cleaning and other parts of everyday life.

But I was surprised at how many people said they were moved to express gratitude to people in their lives.

Sometimes it was for a specific purpose, like the dozens of readers who finally finished writing holiday thank you notes. But often it was to say thanks for ongoing support or for just being there — like the reader who was inspired to write a friend who had faded from her life, or the reader who got the push she needed to send a note of thanks for a friend’s support after a parent’s death.

The overwhelming feeling that people said they came away with was this: Expressing long-overdue gratitude had a meaningful, positive impact for both sender and receiver.

"A Case for Finger Counting" By Youki Terada

By Youki Terada
Republished by Edutopia. View the article at the Edutopia website here

New research suggests that young children may make gains in math by counting with their fingers.

Teachers generally start telling children to stop counting on their fingers around the end of first grade—they’re learning to do math in their heads, and finger counting is sometimes seen as a crutch or even a sign of weak math ability.

A new British study published in Frontiers in Education suggests that this may be a mistake because finger counting seems to boost math learning when paired with number games.

In the four-week experiment, 137 6- and 7-year-old children were split into five groups. One group participated in finger-counting exercises such as counting from 1 to 10 using each finger, showing the correct number of fingers when told a specific number, and doing simple addition or subtraction problems using their fingers. The second group played number games (e.g., dominoes and card games). The third and fourth groups did both—they performed finger-counting exercises and played number games. The final group was the control and didn’t participate in either the exercises or the games.
 

Children who did only the finger-counting exercises improved their finger sense (the ability to mentally differentiate between fingers), while those who played number games were better able to visually gauge the relative size of pairs of dot groupings. And children who participated in both activities outperformed the control group in multiple math-related skills, including counting, ordering, comparing, and adding.

In other words, while number games slightly boosted one math skill, children experienced larger gains on a range of tests when they also used their fingers.

The authors of the study, Tim Jay and Julie Betenson, suggest an intriguing explanation for the boost: The “part of the brain that responds to number lies in close proximity to the area that is activated whenever subjects perform pointing and grasping activities.” So when we use our fingers, we also activate the areas of our brain associated with counting. This parallel processing may explain why young children benefit from finger counting.

While older students should eventually move past finger counting, there’s now a strong case to let younger students continue.

The takeaway: Don’t discourage young children from counting on their fingers—it may actually boost math learning, especially when paired with number games.

"Five Reasons to Stop Saying Good Job!" By Alfie Kohn

By Alfie Kohn
View the article on Alfie Kohn's website here

NOTE: An abridged version of this article was published in Parents magazine in May 2000 with the title “Hooked on Praise.” For a more detailed look at the issues discussed here — as well as a comprehensive list of citations to relevant research — please see the books Punished by Rewards and Unconditional Parenting.

Hang out at a playground, visit a school, or show up at a child’s birthday party, and there’s one phrase you can count on hearing repeatedly: “Good job!” Even tiny infants are praised for smacking their hands together (“Good clapping!”). Many of us blurt out these judgments of our children to the point that it has become almost a verbal tic.

Plenty of books and articles advise us against relying on punishment, from spanking to forcible isolation (“time out”). Occasionally someone will even ask us to rethink the practice of bribing children with stickers or food. But you’ll have to look awfully hard to find a discouraging word about what is euphemistically called positive reinforcement.

Lest there be any misunderstanding, the point here is not to call into question the importance of supporting and encouraging children, the need to love them and hug them and help them feel good about themselves. Praise, however, is a different story entirely. Here’s why.

1. Manipulating children. Suppose you offer a verbal reward to reinforce the behavior of a two-year-old who eats without spilling, or a five-year-old who cleans up her art supplies. Who benefits from this? Is it possible that telling kids they’ve done a good job may have less to do with their emotional needs than with our convenience?

Rheta DeVries, a professor of education at the University of Northern Iowa, refers to this as “sugar-coated control.” Very much like tangible rewards – or, for that matter, punishments – it’s a way of doing something to children to get them to comply with our wishes. It may be effective at producing this result (at least for a while), but it’s very different from working with kids – for example, by engaging them in conversation about what makes a classroom (or family) function smoothly, or how other people are affected by what we have done — or failed to do. The latter approach is not only more respectful but more likely to help kids become thoughtful people.

The reason praise can work in the short run is that young children are hungry for our approval. But we have a responsibility not to exploit that dependence for our own convenience. A “Good job!” to reinforce something that makes our lives a little easier can be an example of taking advantage of children’s dependence. Kids may also come to feel manipulated by this, even if they can’t quite explain why.

2. Creating praise junkies.  To be sure, not every use of praise is a calculated tactic to control children’s behavior. Sometimes we compliment kids just because we’re genuinely pleased by what they’ve done. Even then, however, it’s worth looking more closely. Rather than bolstering a child’s self-esteem, praise may increase kids’ dependence on us. The more we say, “I like the way you….” or “Good ______ing,” the more kids come to rely on our evaluations, our decisions about what’s good and bad, rather than learning to form their own judgments. It leads them to measure their worth in terms of what will lead us to smile and dole out some more approval.

Mary Budd Rowe, a researcher at the University of Florida, discovered that students who were praised lavishly by their teachers were more tentative in their responses, more apt to answer in a questioning tone of voice (“Um, seven?”). They tended to back off from an idea they had proposed as soon as an adult disagreed with them. And they were less likely to persist with difficult tasks or share their ideas with other students.

In short, “Good job!” doesn’t reassure children; ultimately, it makes them feel less secure. It may even create a vicious circle such that the more we slather on the praise, the more kids seem to need it, so we praise them some more. Sadly, some of these kids will grow into adults who continue to need someone else to pat them on the head and tell them whether what they did was OK. Surely this is not what we want for our daughters and sons.

3. Stealing a child’s pleasure. Apart from the issue of dependence, a child deserves to take delight in her accomplishments, to feel pride in what she’s learned how to do. She also deserves to decide when to feel that way. Every time we say, “Good job!”, though, we’re telling a child how to feel.

To be sure, there are times when our evaluations are appropriate and our guidance is necessary — especially with toddlers and preschoolers. But a constant stream of value judgments is neither necessary nor useful for children’s development. Unfortunately, we may not have realized that “Good job!” is just as much an evaluation as “Bad job!” The most notable feature of a positive judgment isn’t that it’s positive, but that it’s a judgment. And people, including kids, don’t like being judged.

I cherish the occasions when my daughter manages to do something for the first time, or does something better than she’s ever done it before. But I try to resist the knee-jerk tendency to say, “Good job!” because I don’t want to dilute her joy. I want her to share her pleasure with me, not look to me for a verdict. I want her to exclaim, “I did it!” (which she often does) instead of asking me uncertainly, “Was that good?”

4. Losing interest.  “Good painting!” may get children to keep painting for as long as we keep watching and praising. But, warns Lilian Katz, one of the country’s leading authorities on early childhood education, “once attention is withdrawn, many kids won’t touch the activity again.” Indeed, an impressive body of scientific research has shown that the more we reward people for doing something, the more they tend to lose interest in whatever they had to do to get the reward. Now the point isn’t to draw, to read, to think, to create – the point is to get the goody, whether it’s an ice cream, a sticker, or a “Good job!”

In a troubling study conducted by Joan Grusec at the University of Toronto, young children who were frequently praised for displays of generosity tended to be slightly less generous on an everyday basis than other children were. Every time they had heard “Good sharing!” or “I’m so proud of you for helping,” they became a little less interested in sharing or helping. Those actions came to be seen not as something valuable in their own right but as something they had to do to get that reaction again from an adult. Generosity became a means to an end.

Does praise motivate kids? Sure. It motivates kids to get praise. Alas, that’s often at the expense of commitment to whatever they were doing that prompted the praise.

5. Reducing achievement. As if it weren’t bad enough that “Good job!” can undermine independence, pleasure, and interest, it can also interfere with how good a job children actually do. Researchers keep finding that kids who are praised for doing well at a creative task tend to stumble at the next task – and they don’t do as well as children who weren’t praised to begin with.

Why does this happen? Partly because the praise creates pressure to “keep up the good work” that gets in the way of doing so. Partly because their interest in what they’re doing may have declined. Partly because they become less likely to take risks – a prerequisite for creativity – once they start thinking about how to keep those positive comments coming.

More generally, “Good job!” is a remnant of an approach to psychology that reduces all of human life to behaviors that can be seen and measured. Unfortunately, this ignores the thoughts, feelings, and values that lie behind behaviors. For example, a child may share a snack with a friend as a way of attracting praise, or as a way of making sure the other child has enough to eat. Praise for sharing ignores these different motives. Worse, it actually promotes the less desirable motive by making children more likely to fish for praise in the future.

*Once you start to see praise for what it is – and what it does – these constant little evaluative eruptions from adults start to produce the same effect as fingernails being dragged down a blackboard. You begin to root for a child to give his teachers or parents a taste of their own treacle by turning around to them and saying (in the same saccharine tone of voice), “Good praising!”

Still, it’s not an easy habit to break. It can seem strange, at least at first, to stop praising; it can feel as though you’re being chilly or withholding something. But that, it soon becomes clear, suggests that we praise more because we need to say it than because children need to hear it. Whenever that’s true, it’s time to rethink what we’re doing.

What kids do need is unconditional support, love with no strings attached. That’s not just different from praise – it’s the opposite of praise. “Good job!” is conditional. It means we’re offering attention and acknowledgement and approval for jumping through our hoops, for doing things that please us.

This point, you’ll notice, is very different from a criticism that some people offer to the effect that we give kids too much approval, or give it too easily. They recommend that we become more miserly with our praise and demand that kids “earn” it. But the real problem isn’t that children expect to be praised for everything they do these days. It’s that we’re tempted to take shortcuts, to manipulate kids with rewards instead of explaining and helping them to develop needed skills and good values.

So what’s the alternative? That depends on the situation, but whatever we decide to say instead has to be offered in the context of genuine affection and love for who kids are rather than for what they’ve done. When unconditional support is present, “Good job!” isn’t necessary; when it’s absent, “Good job!” won’t help.

If we’re praising positive actions as a way of discouraging misbehavior, this is unlikely to be effective for long. Even when it works, we can’t really say the child is now “behaving himself”; it would be more accurate to say the praise is behaving him. The alternative is to work with the child, to figure out the reasons he’s acting that way. We may have to reconsider our own requests rather than just looking for a way to get kids to obey. (Instead of using “Good job!” to get a four-year-old to sit quietly through a long class meeting or family dinner, perhaps we should ask whether it’s reasonable to expect a child to do so.)

We also need to bring kids in on the process of making decisions. If a child is doing something that disturbs others, then sitting down with her later and asking, “What do you think we can do to solve this problem?” will likely be more effective than bribes or threats. It also helps a child learn how to solve problems and teaches that her ideas and feelings are important. Of course, this process takes time and talent, care and courage. Tossing off a “Good job!” when the child acts in the way we deem appropriate takes none of those things, which helps to explain why “doing to” strategies are a lot more popular than “working with” strategies.

And what can we say when kids just do something impressive? Consider three possible responses:

* Say nothing. Some people insist a helpful act must be “reinforced” because, secretly or unconsciously, they believe it was a fluke. If children are basically evil, then they have to be given an artificial reason for being nice (namely, to get a verbal reward). But if that cynicism is unfounded – and a lot of research suggests that it is – then praise may not be necessary.

* Say what you saw. A simple, evaluation-free statement (“You put your shoes on by yourself” or even just “You did it”) tells your child that you noticed. It also lets her take pride in what she did. In other cases, a more elaborate description may make sense. If your child draws a picture, you might provide feedback – not judgment – about what you noticed: “This mountain is huge!” “Boy, you sure used a lot of purple today!”

If a child does something caring or generous, you might gently draw his attention to the effect of his action on the other person: “Look at Abigail’s face! She seems pretty happy now that you gave her some of your snack.” This is completely different from praise, where the emphasis is on how you feel about her sharing

* Talk less, ask more. Even better than descriptions are questions. Why tell him what part of his drawing impressed you when you can ask him what he likes best about it? Asking “What was the hardest part to draw?” or “How did you figure out how to make the feet the right size?” is likely to nourish his interest in drawing. Saying “Good job!”, as we’ve seen, may have exactly the opposite effect.

This doesn’t mean that all compliments, all thank-you’s, all expressions of delight are harmful. We need to consider our motives for what we say (a genuine expression of enthusiasm is better than a desire to manipulate the child’s future behavior) as well as the actual effects of doing so. Are our reactions helping the child to feel a sense of control over her life — or to constantly look to us for approval? Are they helping her to become more excited about what she’s doing in its own right – or turning it into something she just wants to get through in order to receive a pat on the head

It’s not a matter of memorizing a new script, but of keeping in mind our long-term goals for our children and watching for the effects of what we say. The bad news is that the use of positive reinforcement really isn’t so positive. The good news is that you don’t have to evaluate in order to encourage.

"Parent Do-Overs – 7 Confidence Building Responses" by Janet Lansbury

By: Janet Lansbury
View the article on Janet Lansbury's website here

If parenting were film acting, we’d always be brilliant because we’d have plenty of “takes” to perfect our responses (not to mention make-up, hair styling and ridiculously high salaries).  But we are playing a part — the role of a lifetime for a lifetime.  Luckily, we perform for an adoring, forgiving audience, and our children will usually accept our less thoughtful, less than stellar performances. In fact, even our bloopers can be blessings, because they teach kids the invaluable lesson that mistakes are okay since even superstars like their parents make them.

Here are a few of my “Take 2” suggestions for handling common infant and toddler situations and some of the reasoning behind them…

1. Crying

Instead of “Don’t cry”, “Shhhh”, “You’re okay”, “Okay, that’s enough now”, “It’s alright, nothing happened”…

Non-judgmentally acknowledge the child’s response and the incident that caused it. “Ouch, that hurt you when you bumped into the wall.” Or “oh, you are very upset that the dog barked.” Or “You are having a hard time relaxing your body. I hear you.” Then allow the child all the time he or she needs to finish crying with your full support.

Encouraging children to express their feelings is the key to fostering emotional health. No matter how unreasonable our child’s reaction seems, he or she needs it to be accepted. Remember, even adults can’t control emotional reactions, but young children are not capable of controlling the manner in which they express them, either. Discouraging the feelings or responding impatiently invalidates the child. When you’re feeling impatient with a tantruming toddler, stay present, relax and imagine all the future therapy bills you’re saving.

2. Minor accidents

Instead of running over to the child and scooping him up in a panic…

Take a moment to observe his response. If he cries, go close to him as calmly as possible, ask if wants you to pick him up, acknowledge what happened (as explained above) and his feelings about it.

When we respond frantically, we startle our child, which can make him fearful or cause him to become upset when he might have quickly recovered and continued playing. Our little ones are very tuned into us and benefit greatly when we can trust their competence. Allowing children to recover autonomously whenever they are able to fosters self-confidence and resiliency, gives them an opportunity to try to understand what happened and learn something from the experience.

3. Praise

Instead of “good job”, “That’s beautiful”, “You are so smart!” or a big round of applause…

You might say, “Thank you for helping me!” “You did it all by yourself!” “You pulled the plastic beads apart. That was hard!” “You struggled and struggled, but you didn’t give up.” “You must be proud of yourself.” Add specifics so your child knows you’ve been paying attention (and to aid language development).

These responses encourage children to own their accomplishments, protect intrinsic motivation, and are less likely to train kids to depend on others for validation.

4. Encouragement when a child is struggling

Instead of “you can do it!”

“I hear you getting frustrated, but you’re almost there.” “This is hard work you’re doing!” “I’m here and I won’t let you fall, but it is safer for you to climb down yourself. Try placing one foot on the bar below.”

“You can do it” can be perceived as pressure and make the child think he’s disappointed us if he ends up not being able to do it.  Giving a little verbal instruction helps children learn to get down safely after they have climbed onto something. Children usually can do this themselves, but by taking them down, rather than just spotting and providing verbal support, we lead them to believe they can’t.

5. Undesirable behavior

Instead of distracting, coaxing, bribing, shaming, scolding, punishing…

Handle with care, confidence, respect, brevity (save the lectures for another time).  Whenever possible, acknowledge the child’s point of view. “You wanted ___.”  Give a brief instruction (and an option if possible). “I can’t/won’t let you ___. That’s not safe” (or“It’s not time for that now”, etc.). “But you can ___.” Physically block the behavior if necessary. Acknowledge again. “I know you wanted ___ and I wouldn’t let you. That’s upsetting.

Infants and toddlers need help managing their immature impulses and understanding our boundaries. They are not bad kids who need to be reprimanded, punished or “taught a lesson”. The most vital lesson they must learn is that their parents are always in their corner (rather than sending them off to one), and that we will calmly, consistently and patiently remind them of the family rules and prevent them from harming us or themselves. When we do this, children learn our expectations and internalize them with amazing proficiency.

6. Sharing

Instead of telling babies and young toddlers they must share or take turns

Observe closely and calmly reflect (or ‘sportscast’) the situation and allow it to unfold. “Justin, you are holding the ball and Meredith wants it, too. Now Meredith has the ball.” Or, “Meredith are you asking Justin for the ball? Justin seems to be saying he wants to keep it for now. Maybe when he’s done. “

Infants and toddlers commonly socialize by taking and (less often) giving toys. From the child’s perspective it’s as if the toys suddenly come alive and become interesting when another baby is holding them. When we allow children to connect with and learn from each other this way, they may react negatively in the moment, but they are usually quite capable of working it out without our intervention.  The big clue to the child’s perspective?  After these little play tussles have ended, the desired toy is almost always left behind, no longer of interest to either child.

7. Learning language

Instead of correcting toddlers when they mispronounce words or use them incorrectly (for example, they call green “yellow” or a rabbit “a dog”)…

Don’t. It takes courage to speak words for the first time. Encourage your child to speak by treating him with the same respect you would a foreigner trying out English. If the child mispronounces a word, we can respond in a manner that provides a gentle correction. In other words, when your child points to the rabbit and says “bobby”, you could reply, “I see the rabbit, too!” If the child points to the rabbit and says “dog”, you could say honestly, “Yes, I see! That looks like a dog.”

When children begin using language, they are only able to say a fraction of the words they know. Chances are they know the difference between a rabbit and a dog but just aren’t able to express that yet. Trusting and supporting your child’s process means allowing him to be “right” as much as possible. And don’t forget to enjoy (and log!) your child’s creative use of language while it lasts.

Cut, print, that’s a wrap.

"RIE Parenting Basics (9 Ways to Put Respect into Action)" By Janet Lansbury

By: Janet Lansbury, December 5th, 2013

RIE parenting could be summed up as an awareness of our babies. We perceive and
acknowledge them to be unique, separate people. We enhance our awareness by
observing them — allowing them the bit of space they need to show us who they are
and what they need.


RIE parenting also makes us more self-aware. Through our sensitive observations we
learn not to jump to conclusions; for example, that our babies are bored, tired, cold,
hungry, or want to hold the toy they seem to notice across the room. We learn not to
assume that grumbling or fussing means babies need to be propped to sitting, picked
up, or rocked or bounced to sleep. We recognize that, like us, babies sometimes have
feelings that they want to share and will work through them in their own way with our
support.
We learn to differentiate our children’s signals from our own projections. We become
more aware of the habits we create (like sitting babies up or jiggling them to sleep),
habits that can then become our child’s needs. These are artificially created needs
rather than organic ones.

In short, RIE parenting asks us to use our minds as well as our instinct, to look and
listen closely and carefully before we respond.

Sensitive observation proves to us that our babies are competent individuals with
thoughts, wishes and needs of their own, and once we discover this truth there’s no
turning back. Then, like Alison Gopnik, one of several psychologists on the forefront of
an exciting new wave of infant brain research, we might wonder, “Why were we so
wrong about babies for so long?”

Practiced observers like RIE founder Magda Gerber weren’t wrong. More than sixty
years ago, Gerber and her mentor, pediatrician Emmi Pikler, knew what Gopnik’s
research is finally now proving: infants are born with phenomenal learning abilities,
unique gifts, deep thoughts and emotions. Pikler and Gerber dismissed the notion of
babies as “cute blobs” years ago, understood them as whole people deserving of our
respect.

Gerber’s RIE approach can perhaps be best described as putting respect for babies into
action. Here’s how:

1. We communicate authentically. We speak in our authentic voices (though a bit
more slowly with babies and toddlers), use real words and talk about real things,
especially things that directly pertain to our babies and that are happening now. We
encourage babies to build communication skills by asking them questions, affording
them plenty of time to respond, always acknowledging their communication.

2. We invite babies to actively participate in caregiving activities like diapering,
bathing, meals and bedtime rituals and give them our full attention during these
activities. This inclusion and focused attention nurtures our parent-child relationship,
providing children the sense of security they need to be able to separate and engage in
self-directed play.

3. We encourage uninterrupted, self-directed play by offering even the youngest
infants free play opportunities, sensitively observing so as not to needlessly interrupt,
and trusting that our child’s play choices are enough. Perfect, actually.

4. We allow children to develop motor and cognitive skills naturally according to
their innate timetables by offering them free play and movement opportunities in an
enriching environment, rather than teaching, restricting or otherwise interfering with
these organic processes. Our role is development is primarily trust.

5. We value intrinsic motivation and inner-directedness, so we acknowledge effort
and take care not to over-praise. We trust our children to know themselves better than
we know them, so we allow children to lead when they play and choose enrichment
activities, rather than projecting our own interests. We encourage our children’s
passions and support them to fulfill their dreams.

6. We encourage children to express their emotions by openly accepting and
acknowledging them.

7. We recognize that children need confident, empathetic leaders and clear
boundaries, but not shaming, distractions, punishments or time out.

8. We allow children to problem-solve and experience and learn from ageappropriate
conflicts with our support.

9. We understand the power of our modeling and recognize that our children are
learning from us through our every word and action about love, relationships, empathy,
generosity, gratitude, patience, tolerance, kindness, honesty and respect. Most
profoundly, they’re learning about themselves, their abilities and their worth, their place
in our hearts and in the world.

Note: these are not Magda Gerber’s official RIE principles.

The outcome of all this? I couldn’t agree more with the promises stated on the RIE site:
“RIE helps adults raise children who are competent, confident, curious, attentive,
exploring, cooperative, secure, peaceful, focused, self-initiating, resourceful, involved,
inner-directed, aware and interested”.

But what I’m most grateful to Magda and RIE for is the deeply trusting, mutually
respectful relationships I have with my children. Respect and trust have a boomerang
effect. They come right back at you. As Magda promised, I’ve raised kids I not only love,
but “in whose company I love being.”

"Don’t leave a testing toddler hanging" By: Janet Lansbury

Your 10-month-old spends the majority of your playgroup session climbing and
squirming on your lap, using you to pull up to standing as you sit on the floor.

Your 18-month-old can’t seem to make up his mind. First he wants to go outside.
Two minutes later he wants to come back in. A minute later he wants to go out
again.

Your 2-year-old isn’t ready to get into her car seat, regardless of your schedule.
Her resistance and stalling seem to increase each day despite your patience and
respectful attitude. When you’ve finally run out of time and need to place her into
the seat yourself, she screams.

Your 3-year-old wants you to play with him when you need to make dinner. He
howls and holds onto your legs. A few minutes later he hits the dog. At dinner time,
he demands yogurt instead of the food you’ve prepared. Later he refuses to get out
of the bath tub and get ready for bed.

What do these toddlers have in common? They’ve been left hanging in toddler
testing limbo. A No-Win Situation

The problem for children: It’s a healthy toddler’s job to test our limits. When we
don’t answer these tests definitively, kids can become increasingly preoccupied
with testing. When children are stuck testing, they’re not playing, socializing,
creating, learning, fulfilling their potential. Testing limbo is an unproductive
distraction.

Young children are extremely perceptive. When they are stuck in testing mode,
they are aware that their behavior annoys, and maybe even infuriates the adults
caring for them. This is not a comfortable or healthy place for a child to be.
The problem for us: Testing limbo isn’t comfortable for parents either. If we don’t
address testing behaviors calmly and directly, we can become increasingly irritated
and exhausted, lose our cool and feel guilty, dislike parenting, even resent and lose
affection for our child. Tests are requests, and when we don’t provide conclusive
“answers” in our responses, we unwittingly provoke more testing.

Testing is like a mouse in our house. If we don’t notice it and handle it effectively,
it’s likely to show up in other situations as well (and multiply!).

How to help: Testing is our children’s subtle (and sometimes not so subtle) way of
signaling for our help and requires a clear and, preferably, immediate answer.
Parents shouldn’t be afraid to be decisive and direct, because we can always
change our minds (decisively) later, which is actually excellent modeling. “I
thought about it and realized it’s okay for you to splash the water out of the pool.
I’m sorry to have told you no.”

Whether we are at home, in public, or at the homes of friends and relatives,
preventing children in our care from getting stuck in testing limbo is a profound
demonstration of our love. Here’s how RIE Educator Lisa Sunbury Gerber, the
mother of a toddler, articulated this approach in one of our recent conversations:
“In social situations, especially where others may have different rules or
expectations, what helps me is to stay close to R and focused on her. Even if the
other parent has rules I don’t agree with or enforce at home, I see my job as
protecting R and helping her to succeed in situations like this, and that means
staying close and setting the limit... It is good modeling, too. She does understand
that in some situations and some places there are different expectations.”


Steps I Recommend
1. Clearly express the limit: “I don’t want you to (or “I can’t let you” or “I won’t
let you”) scream right next to me while I’m putting the baby to bed.”

2. Acknowledge desires and feelings: “You want to stay here with us. You are
having a hard time being quiet.”
An acknowledgement can also come before stating the limit, i.e. “You want to help
me put the baby to bed. I can’t let you make noise in here while she goes to sleep.”

3. Follow through: Be prepared to take action — our words are seldom enough to
ease testing. “I’m going to ask you to wait outside the room with Daddy. I’m going
to walk you out. I’ll be there with you in a few minutes.”
Following through might mean holding your child’s hands as she tries to hit,
removing an unsafe object from her hands, putting toys or objects away, moving
your child out of a situation in which she’s stuck testing.
If you hear yourself stating the limit a second time, you are probably waiting too
long to follow through and help your child follow your direction.

4. Accept your child’s negative response. Breathe, relax, let go, let feelings be.
These feelings are not your fault or responsibility. They don’t belong to you.
Releasing these feelings is the healthiest thing she can do, because they are almost
always about so much more than the situation at hand. You and your child must be
able to let go and accept this disagreement so that you can both move on.

5. Reconnect by acknowledging your child’s perspective and feelings (again).
Let her know through your emphatic tone that you understand the intensity of her
feelings — that you totally get her message: “Wow, you didn’t like that at all! You
seemed furious. You wanted so much to stay in the room with me.” Be available
for hugs or cuddles and allow your child to initiate them.
Handling these situations assuredly with empathy and acceptance will pre-empt the
cycle and prevent them from becoming a daily occurrence.
Screaming, yelling and foul language are tests that we cannot prevent. Our children
control these actions. However, by underreacting we can deactivate these “buttons”
so that children quickly lose interest in pushing them. It is still important to let kids
know we hear the message in their screams and extreme statements like, “I hate the
baby (or you),” to which we might respond, “I hear the anger in those words. Big
brothers feel like that sometimes.”

“…and WAIT!” by Magda Gerber

“…and WAIT!” by Magda Gerber
Once, many years ago, I saw an infant lying on the floor who was trying to catch something in a very dreamy, beautiful way. I didn’t see anything but I knew that the child saw something. Only as I walked around did I realize that the dust in the air was creating a rainbow, and that’s what the child saw. That experience stayed with me as a symbolic reminded, so that now when people do things, I want to say: “That child may just see the rainbow—don’t interrupt. Wait.”


Time for uninterrupted play

The less we interrupt, the more easily infants develop a long attention span. According to many books, a baby has a short attention span; but that is not quite true. If infants are well cared for, if they can do what they happen to be interested in at that time, and if nobody interrupts, they have much longer attention spans than we give them credit for. Country to grown-up’s expectations, infants do not usually get overly frustrated by struggles during play. When a toy gets caught, or a ball rolls away, they may even enjoy the situation, and certainly from it—if adults do not solve the problem for them.

To a degree, the child’s response to potential frustrations is influenced by the adult’s reaction. Even a very young child will look around to check out the adult’s reaction when one of these puzzling, unexpected events occurs. A calm, observant comment, such as “Oh, the ball rolled away,” will allow your baby to retain his role as initiator in his play and to choose how to handle the situation.

Sometimes parents who haven’t been paying much attention will suddenly realize it and say something like “Oh, you built such a nice tower!” And you know what happens? The child stops building the tower. Such an abrupt comment, rather than making a connection, interrupts play. If real sensitivity exists, then when the child looks up and sees the parent’s eyes, then the parent’s eyes are quietly there. That can be the time to make the comment.
 

Selective Intervention

Wait! In so many situations, to wait means to allow problems to resolve themselves.

Selective intervention means knowing when not to intervene, and this is more difficult that
intervening indiscriminately.

If an infant gets into a difficult situation (climbing up, for example), it is important to allow her to do whatever she can do, which means we must wait and wait and wait. But we do come near so the infant knows we are available, which brings about a certain amount of security. Rather than give the message, “When you are in trouble, you scream and I rescue you,” we would like to convey the feeling, “I think you can handle it, but if not, I am here.”

Often you will find out that, even though you thought you had to help, the child didn’t really need your help. I prefer to wait until the infant really lets me know, “I cannot handle it any more.” (And if this happens, it’s very important to know why—is she tired?)

You might just ask, even a child who does not yet speak, “Do you need some help?” or, as a last resort, perhaps, “Do you want me to help you down?”

In providing infants with the minimal help they need to overcome an impasse, we demonstrate our trust in their competence and allow them to enjoy mastery of their own actions.

"Scientists Say Child's Play Helps Build A Better Brain" by Jon Hamilton

By Jon Hamilton
Republished by National Public Radio (NPR). View the article at the NPR website here

When it comes to brain development, time in the classroom may be less important than time on the playground.

"The experience of play changes the connections of the neurons at the front end of your brain," says Sergio Pellis, a researcher at the University of Lethbridge in Alberta, Canada. "And without play experience, those neurons aren't changed," he says.

It is those changes in the prefrontal cortex during childhood that help wire up the brain's executive control center, which has a critical role in regulating emotions, making plans and solving problems, Pellis says. So play, he adds, is what prepares a young brain for life, love and even schoolwork.

But to produce this sort of brain development, children need to engage in plenty of so-called free play, Pellis says. No coaches, no umpires, no rule books.

"Whether it's rough-and-tumble play or two kids deciding to build a sand castle together, the kids themselves have to negotiate, well, what are we going to do in this game? What are the rules we are going to follow?" Pellis says. The brain builds new circuits in the prefrontal cortex to help it navigate these complex social interactions, he says.

Learning From Animals

Much of what scientists know about this process comes from research on animal species that engage in social play. This includes cats, dogs and most other mammals. But Pellis says he has also seen play in some birds, including young magpies that "grab one another and start wrestling on the ground like they were puppies or dogs."

For a long time, researchers thought this sort of rough-and-tumble play might be a way for young animals to develop skills like hunting or fighting. But studies in the past decade or so suggest that's not the case. Adult cats, for example, have no trouble killing a mouse even if they are deprived of play as kittens.

So researchers like Jaak Panksepp at Washington State University have come to believe play has a very different purpose: "The function of play is to build pro-social brains, social brains that know how to interact with others in positive ways," Panksepp says.

Panksepp has studied this process in rats, which love to play and even produce a distinctive sound he has labeled "rat laughter." When the rats are young, play appears to initiate lasting changes in areas of the brain used for thinking and processing social interactions, Panskepp says.

The changes involve switching certain genes on and off. "We found that play activates the whole neocortex," he says. "And we found that of the 1,200 genes that we measured, about one-third of them were significantly changed simply by having a half-hour of play."

Of course, this doesn't prove that play affects human brains the same way. But there are good reasons to believe it does, Pellis says.

For one thing, he says, play behavior is remarkably similar across species. Rats, monkeys and children all abide by similar rules that require participants to take turns, play fair and not inflict pain. Play also helps both people and animals become more adept socially, Pellis says.

And in people, he says, an added bonus is that the skills associated with play ultimately lead to better grades. In one study, researchers found that the best predictor of academic performance in eighth grade was a child's social skills in third grade.

Another hint that play matters, Pellis says, is that "countries where they actually have more recess tend to have higher academic performance than countries where recess is less."

"Molding the Future: Child Development Through Work with Clay" By Todd Erickson

By Todd Erickson
Republished by Stanford: Bing Nursery School. View the article at the here

A child approaches the West PM art table, where a ball of grayish clay awaits. She picks up the ball and feels its cool smoothness in her hands. As she squeezes, the ball slowly changes its shape. Her fingers dig deeply into the now elongated form, and with some effort she pulls it into two pieces. A smile spreads across her face as she puts both pieces on the table and vigorously pounds her fists into them.

One of the paradoxes behind all of Bing’s open-ended, basic materials (blocks, clay, paint, sand and water) is their wonderful complexity. Clay is an excellent example of this paradox. It offers an alluring mix of hardness and flexibility. It is simultaneously plastic and yet resistant. Unlike water, paint and sand, clay can indefinitely maintain its shape after manipulation. Perhaps it is closest to blocks in its density and permanence.

When children in West PM work with clay as an expressive medium, their experience touches a variety of different developmental modalities that support and inform each other. These modalities touch the most basic aspects of human experience: physical development, cognitive challenge, artistic expression, social connection and emotional satisfaction.


The interaction between hand and clay can be not only physically stimulating
but also emotionally satisfying to children. A handprint allows children to
consider their reflection in and imprint on the wider physical world.

Physically, clay offers a child an excellent combination of fine and large motor opportunities. Fingers can pinch, smooth, poke and push smaller pieces of clay through detailed and intricate fine motor work. Importantly, many of the hand muscles at work during clay play are the same muscles a child will use to hold a pencil, tie shoes or button clothes. As hands and arms work to slap, push, squeeze and pound, large motor skills are called upon. It is not uncommon for children to lean their entire upper torso into the clay as they are flattening or cutting it. Clay provides and sometimes demands a whole body experience!

As a child considers the lump of clay in his hands, he creates a plan of action and evaluates the various steps needed to reach his goal. These cognitive processes, known as executive function, will be vital for future information assessment and problem solving. As he rolls the ball of clay into a long worm-like shape and then back into a ball, his rudimentary, hands-on experiments with advanced concepts like the conservation of mass (the mass of an object does not change, even if the shape of it does) increase his overall awareness of physical properties of the world around him.

Pablo Picasso said, “Every child is an artist. The problem is how to remain an artist once we grow up.” Picasso understood the vast levels of creativity possessed by the very young. Like all of Bing’s five basic materials, clay is open-ended, which allows a child to approach a ball of clay as she would a blank piece of easel paper. The clay can become anything from an abstract design to a flying vehicle with rocket blasters. And with greater experience and confidence naturally follows increased awareness and attention to creative elements and aesthetics. As children move into what is called a “later representational” stage of clay creation, they name their clay creation before they actually begin the work. If it is true that every child is an artist, then every child is an intentional artist. Even a seemingly experimental or random clay construction contains deep meaning and significance to a child. In fact, West PM teachers can learn much about a child by simply observing her creative choices with clay.

When a child shares some part of himself through his clay expression, he is using the clay to also reach out for social connection. He is telling his peers, his teachers and the world, “This is who I am. This is what I feel strongly about.” Further, when children join together around the clay table, a social dynamic is created that often deepens social connection. Recently in West PM, Devin and Rhys used the clay to make pizza, pancakes and salad. By sharing their small feast, along with lots of laughter, the children deepened their social bond.

West PM teachers are also interested in teaching various techniques, when appropriate. One example is the creation of a “pinch pot” by using the thumb and index fingers to pinch the edges of a flat, round piece of clay. As a child diligently applies this technique to create a bowl-like shape, she receives emotional satisfaction thanks to her growing competence. Satisfaction can be achieved not only through increased skills, however, but also by the specific application of those skills. When she is able to use clay to create something that both pleases her and carries even a degree of representational accuracy, a child feels deeply satisfied.

As mentioned above, these developmental modalities do not exist in isolation. A recent moment at the West PM clay table illustrates the interrelation of these developmental growth points. José sat down at the table and began slapping several small pieces of clay with his open palm (large motor physical development). Once the pieces were flattened, José delicately attached the various pieces together (fine motor physical development). “Mickey Mouse,” he announced as he examined his work (artistic expression). After considering his creation, he then added a tiny piece of clay to the torso. “This is the nametag,” José said, pointing at his new addition (cognitive development). José held up his clay mouse for the children at the clay table to see, which prompted the question from a peer, “How did you make that?” José then shared with the peer his process of making the clay mouse (social connection). When he was finished walking through the steps with a peer, José smiled broadly, quite content with his work (emotional satisfaction).

Clay is a timeless substance that concurrently touches many aspects of a child’s development. Like all basic materials, it meets the child at her own distinct abilities and interests. Yet despite its unassuming appearance, clay also pushes children toward greater exploration. Clay inspires invigorating activity that bridges ages and genders and allows for infinite expression. Clay is truly an effective multidisciplinary material!
 

MIT Brain Study: Back-And-Forth Talk Key To Developing Kids' Verbal Skills By: Carey Goldberg

By: Carey Goldberg
Republished by WBUR. View the article at the WBUR website here

New MIT research finds that for children's brain development, parents don't just need to talk to their kids — it's important to talk with them, in back-and-forth exchanges.

"What we found is, the more often parents engaged in back-and-forth conversation with their child, the stronger was the brain response in the front of the brain to language," said cognitive neuroscience professor John Gabrieli.

That stronger brain response, measured as children ages 4 to 6 lay in a scanner listening to simple stories, reflects a deeper, more intimate engagement with language, said graduate student Rachel Romeo.

On average, a child from a better-off, more-educated family is likely to hear 30 million more words in the first three years of life than a child from a less-well-off family.

That finding from 1995 helped explain some school achievement gaps. Now, the MIT researchers have illuminated how more talking actually changes a child's brain — and it's not just about the number of words a child hears, Romeo said. It's about interaction, the number of conversational "turns" that parents and preschool-aged children took while wearing recorders that taped their every word over two days.

And the effect didn't depend on parents' income or education, she noted, so it's not as if lower-income children are "doomed" to weaker verbal abilities.

"It seems to suggest, instead, that if they're provided with a rich verbal environment early in life, that that can predict great language and cognitive outcomes," Romeo said.

The finding is an important addition to work over the last 20-plus years on language development, said Dr. Marilyn Augustyn, a behavioral pediatrician at Boston Medical Center who was not involved in the study. She praised its use of brain scanners and recording devices to move the research forward.

A previous study turned up similar MRI findings on children who were read to by their parents, she said, "But what's really revolutionary about this study — and why I think it's really important — is it did both: It looked at the conversations, the words that children heard, and then also looked at the brain activation."

It strengthens a two-part message, she added. "One, we need to talk to our children from the moment they're born, and probably in utero. And two, that language needs to come out of a relationship — and that's what this study really cements. It isn't about streaming tape to a child through the course of a day with thousands and thousands of words, because those become meaningless. It's really about the relationship."

The next step in the research, Romeo said, will be to study an early intervention that gives toddlers more back-and-forth conversations.

"Obviously a two-year-old is not going to debate philosophy with you, but just a back and forth with them, whatever their capabilities are, is really valuable," she said.

The study found a broad range in how many conversational "turns" parents and child took in the course of an hour, from just 90 to as many as 400, Romeo said.

Families under more stress — say, with parents holding down more jobs — may have a harder time changing their conversational interactions with children, Gabrieli acknowledged. "But it is a thing — a very specific thing — that any of us could do with the right encouragement and support," he said.

Passively watched screens clearly do not bring the same sort of interaction as real conversation. But could a smart speaker use artificial intelligence to develop a child's brain much as a conversational parent would?

That question will require more study, the researchers said. Some initial research suggests that if devices can really respond to what a child says, they may offer added benefits, Romeo said.

But Dr. Augustyn is skeptical. Children can become very connected to technology, she said, but even if they develop some sort of relationship with a smart speaker, ultimately, "Alexa doesn't have a lap."