What if boosting a toddler’s brainpower was as easy as turning on a light switch? In fact, “Flip the Switch” is one of the simple activities suggested by Vroom, an initiative that provides creative tools and materials to help families turn daily interactions with children into “brain building moments.” On one side of an electronic “flashcard” Vroom describes this idea for children between six months and two years old: “Before leaving the house today, let your child be the one to turn off the lights. Help them flip all the switches and talk about how their actions turn the lights off for darkness and on for light.” On the reverse side Vroom explains the “brainy background” behind it: “This game teaches your child about cause and effect. When one of you hits the switch, your child will observe how the lights turn off and on. Have a conversation about what is happening so they learn some new words too.”
Vroom, an initiative of the Bezos Family Foundation, is one of a number of initiatives across the country focused on empowering parents to boost early childhood brain development. The first five years of life are the time of greatest brain development. Early nurturing interactions with caring adults form the basis of a healthy brain foundation. The strong case for increased federal investments for quality child care and other early childhood programs is bolstered by the great local work supporting families and communities in building healthy brains during children’s earliest years of life.
Vroom is partnering with leaders in a number of cities to build early learning communities where high quality early learning environments are available for all children. In Dallas, Vroom is working with the Commit! Partnership to improve access to quality early learning opportunities and create a continuum of care to support children and families, with an ultimate goal of ensuring 80 percent of Dallas children enter kindergarten ready to learn by 2025. They are using Vroom’s “Moments Framework” to educate parents about the importance of the early years for children’s development and suggest activities they can do. For example, what do zoos, museums, laundromats and nail salons have in common? For Vroom, these are all opportunities to spread awareness about how parents can create “brain building moments” every day while they are out and about with their children. Vroom has also launched a free app so parents can receive daily developmentally appropriate activities like “Flip the Switch” on their smartphones.
A baby is born with a brain 25 percent as large as an adult brain. Researchers at the Institute for Learning and Brain Science at the University of Washington tell us that by the time she reaches her fifth birthday, her brain is already over 90 percent of the size of her mature brain. That startling period of growth in size is mirrored by the growth in neural connections needed to learn how to process information and build skills.
The Center on the Developing Child at Harvard University reports that in the earliest years of a child’s life more than one million of these connections are formed every second, with simpler connections paving the way for more complex ones. These early connections build the foundation for children’s future health, education and behavior. Every time adults respond appropriately to a young child’s calls for attention, they are helping build and strengthen neural connections and supporting the development of a strong brain foundation. The Center on the Developing Child refers to this quality parent-child communication as “serve and return” interactions and says the absence of them is a “serious threat” to a child’s development.
The idea for the Boston Basics initiative was born out of a 2011 conference hosted by Dr. Ron Ferguson devoted to discovering what parents need to know to help eliminate skill gaps already evident at age two. An advisory committee of researchers came up with five “Basics” all parents should practice with their children to support healthy brain development: 1) Maximize Love, Manage Stress; 2) Talk, Sing, and Point; 3) Count, Group, and Compare; 4) Explore through Movement and Play; and 5) Read and Discuss Stories. The Boston Basics Campaign, launched in January 2016, is a public-private collaboration between leaders from the Black Philanthropy Fund, the Boston Mayor’s Office, the Pediatrics Department at Boston Medical Center, WGBH Broadcasting and the Boston Children’s Museum among many other community leaders. The “basics” are being infused throughout the Boston community — engaging health care providers, places of worship, libraries and museums, barbershops, early childhood centers, and schools to ensure parents are saturated with information about how to support their child’s brain development wherever they go. Boston Basics demonstrates the potential for private organizations and government partners to come together in support of young children in a community. The Black Philanthropy Fund was instrumental in investing time and resources to lead the campaign, which is now being expanded to a number of other cities.
Too Small to Fail, a joint initiative of the Clinton Foundation and the Opportunity Institute, launched the excellent public awareness and action campaign “Talking is Teaching: Talk, Read, Sing,” which uses books, parent videos, text messaging, and social media to share fun and easy ways for parents and caregivers to boost their child’s early brain and vocabulary development. There are now “Talking is Teaching Word Gap” campaigns in dozens of cities across the country.
Just as the latest research shows that investments in quality early childhood programs generate an average annual return of more than 13 percent on every dollar invested, every effort made in boosting young children’s brainpower — including the thousands of simple, fun, and free activities parents and caregivers can weave into everyday life — benefits all of us later on. These important community initiatives are essential but cannot make up for needed public investments in programs that support children’s early development. High-quality child care and other early opportunities are out of reach for too many children and families that need them but are also critical for further strengthening children’s early brain development. Healthy early child brain development is not a partisan issue. Congress should embrace the evidence and make the investments needed today to guarantee every baby has a strong start to ensure a strong America tomorrow.
Marian Wright Edelman is President of the Children’s Defense Fund whose Leave No Child Behind® mission is to ensure every child a Healthy Start, a Head Start, a Fair Start, a Safe Start and a Moral Start in life and successful passage to adulthood with the help of caring families and communities. For more information go to staging.childrensdefense.org.
Mrs. Edelman’s Child Watch Column also appears each week on The Huffington Post.