Bendy trees and bendy brains

 

I was walking in a forest a few days ago and came across some interesting trees. Their shapes and structures are amazing.

Why are they so bendy?

Well, the answer is simple. These trees grew near the top of a hill, on its south-west facing slope. When the trees were growing as young saplings, they were constantly blown by the wind coming off the side of the hill. Their root structures must have been good because they were able to adapt to the early onslaught from the wind and develop into trees with unusual architecture.

I thought it would be good to reflect on these bendy trees and write a little about how our early years as children play a huge part in shaping our later years.

The first few years as young saplings have dictated the bendy tree’s unusual characteristics. The human brain is similar.

Our brains develop from the bottom up. The architecture of the brain is laid into place before birth and continues into adulthood, but our early experiences very much affect the quality of that architecture. A solid foundation, or a fragile one, can lave lasting effects.

Research conducted at Harvard University has found that during the first few years of childhood more than one million new neural connections are formed every second. This rapid proliferation of connections lays the groundwork for further development and further refinement.

The really fascinating thing about brain development is the idea of pruning. From the massive amount of neural connections, the child’s brain ‘prunes’ these so that many of the early connections are disregarded, allowing the circuitry to be refined. Pruning and refinement is influenced by both genetic and behavioural factors.

So, how do we influence good and effective pruning that is going on inside the child’s brain? How do we help baby and toddler get the best brains possible?

The ‘serve and return’ theory of brain development is an important one. When baby cries, an adult usually responds, with eye contact, kind words, a hug, and maybe some food. The brain recognises these responses and, as a result, positive connections are formed. Young children babble and reach out with their hands, only to find that an adult responds with gestures, noises, words and happy smiley faces. The child’s brain frantically processes these responses, and it forms neural connections, refining its circuitry. The baby serves, and adult returns. And the brain grows.

The early brain is bendy too

Just like the young saplings in the forest, a two-year-olds brain is flexible and plastic; it needs to be to cope with the massive proliferation of activity. The more the child is exposed to positive interactions, the more its brain develops.

Things move quickly during the first two years of life. By the end of the first year, the brain can differentiate sounds and, even at this early stage of development, it has learned to tune out sounds from different languages. It is busy and it needs to focus on the things that are important, so if it hears a language from people other than mum and dad, it deems these sounds unimportant. The process of pruning is well underway.

However, things can go wrong during early development. The scientists at Harvard found that brain architecture can be changed if stress occurs during early years. Stress that damages the developing brain can have lasting consequences. Unrelenting stress in early childhood, caused by neglect or by the inability of parents to respond properly to baby, can seriously affect the ability to function properly in later life.

Stress is good though. Look at the bendy trees. They managed to cope with the early prevailing wind. The young child can adapt to stressors too. Positive stress is an important and necessary aspect of development. Think about the young child being told ‘no’ with a stern look from mum or dad. The child learns that sometimes it cannot have everything it wants.

The first 2,555 days of life

‘Give me a child until he is seven and I will show you the man’, said a well-known Greek philosopher. If this saying is true, it means that human beings are made in the first 2,555 days of life (ignoring any leap years!). Perhaps this is an oversimplification, but research certainly suggests the foundations are put down during those first few years.

So, what do we need to do during those first two thousand days? Can we really influence the child’s later life?

Absolutely, yes.

Children who experience lots of interaction with their parents will form better social and communication skills in later life. Games that show the child you are paying attention offer wonderful training for a child’s brain. Games that use the serve and return concept are excellent.

On the other hand, where parents don’t recognise the importance of interaction, and therefore don’t give the child the attention it craves, developmental issues can result. Sometimes parents are under too much stress themselves and they don’t spend enough time with baby because of this stress. Or, sometimes it is simply lack of knowledge or education that prevents some parents interacting.

How to play serve and return

It takes two to play. For many parents, the game is instinctive. When the child looks at something or points to an object, many parents will pick up the object and hand it to the child. This is serve and return working at its best. The child serves and the adult returns.

The infant has limited ways to serve. They will point, wave their arms, babble, and stare at things. These are all indicators that the child’s brain is ready for more development. By picking up an object, or by returning facial gestures, or by naming the object that child was looking at, the child starts to form those vital neural pathways in the brain, pathways that will stay there forever.

Every time you return a serve, wait a little. Watch the child process the information. Suppose a child points at something and you pick it up and hand it to them. They will ponder it for a few moments. Then, you might point at the object and name it. Again, they will ponder. After a few moments, you might interact again, perhaps moving the object around. This simple interaction, which takes only a few minutes, have helped build and refine circuitry in the brain. During those minutes, the child’s brain will be frantically whirring, processing, pruning and building circuits that it can use over and over.

Just be good enough

The ‘good enough is enough’ principle is a good one to remember though. Parenting is not easy and sometimes it is enough to be just good enough. Fulfilling children’s physical and emotional needs by giving them food, tucking them into bed, making them feel safe and secure, and enjoying moments of delight can greatly help those neurons to form properly. Add into the mix some time each day for serve and return play and you will have a great child.

Neural connections are like the roots of a tree. If the roots are well-nourished and form properly, the tree can withstand trauma and grow to be healthy. The bendy trees on the hillside are a great example. Early environmental factors have influenced how the trees developed but they have lived long lives, full of interest and character.

Listen to my podcast about serve and return.