Did that tag line grab your attention? As parents, we're under constant pressure to do whatever we can to give our children a leg up. Millions of dollars are spent marketing to us, most of it without a whole lot of grounding in reality. For example, claims are continually made, yet there is scant evidence to date that "educational" software has much (if any) benefit for children.
What "new" product does promote brain development? Apologies if you find it a stretch, but new books come out every week. That may not sound flashy, but more than any other "product," time with books has been shown to build language and cognitive abilities. There is evidence to show that:
- Exposure to books in early childhood has been linked to improved language development.
- Exposure to books in early childhood has been linked to improved academic performance.
And, there is also evidence to show that:
- Hours spent in front of a screen in early childhood predict similar screen use later in life.
- Increased screen time correlates with poorer academic scores, shorter attention spans, obesity and other less than ideal outcomes.
For parents of young children, a vital fact to know is this: Habitual behaviors hard-wire themselves. The brain develops across our entire lives through a concept called 'neuroplasticity.' Anything we repeat enough reinforces itself by creating brain connections to support that specific behavior. Routines built early in childhood neurologically sustain themselves around nutrition, exercise, reading, technology and countless other aspects of life.
There's nothing wrong with well-managed computer use for entertainment, and technology can be a powerful tool when well-utilized. Someday, a specific product may even be proven to educate. Yet, screen habits develop early and built-in marketing is highly influential. In order to raise a generation of children able to manage media without allowing an intrusion on other vital activities or a push towards less healthy habits, we must promote and model a balanced lifestyle from the start.
Most parents want to encourage children to skillfully and willingly spend time with peers, reading and in physical activity, and to be able to fill down time with self-created imaginative play. If you teach a child to depend on constant screen entertainment at the first sign of fussiness and boredom, that pattern may continue through all of childhood. There may even be particular value to time spent daydreaming.
We need to go out of our way to emphasize activities such as reading, open-ended play, outdoor play and family time, all of which have been shown to promote healthy child development. For example:
- Families exposed to books early are more likely to value reading (which improves language abilities and builds background knowledge).
- Social, imaginative play has been linked to strong executive function (self-management) abilities, which correlates with academic success later in school.
- Contrary to claims, educational products have not been shown to build language or cognitive skills in young children. Screens have been shown, however, to disrupt and shorten social interactions with parents and caretakers.
Build a Better Brain
It is national literacy month in the United States. Get on board by going back to the basics. No one is going to spend millions of dollars to convince you that the most important product for your child's development may simply be a pile of books. Lots of people are going to try to sell you other stuff. Take special effort this month to bring books into your home, emphasize reading as a joint activity and make reading fun.
Reach Out and Read is a national organization that promotes early literacy by giving out books to low-income children during well-child visits with their pediatrician. Here are tips selected from its website for building a young child's relationship with books:
- Make reading part of every day.
- Have fun. Talk about the pictures. You do not have to read the book to tell a story.
- Let your child turn the pages.
- Run your finger along the words as you read them.
- Choose books about events in your child's life such as starting preschool, going to the dentist, getting a new pet or moving to a new home.
- Make the story come alive. Create voices for the story characters.
- Ask questions about the story. What do you think will happen next?
- Let your child ask questions about the story.
- Talk about the activities and objects depicted in the story. Make connections with your child's day to day experience.
- If someone you know cannot read, encourage them to share books through activities such as describing the pictures and prompting children to do the same.
- Visit your local library often -- you do not even need to spend money on this particular brain-building product at all!