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Environment Shapes Intelligence


Q. I've heard that most of a person's brain growth occurs in babyhood. So what should I be doing to foster my baby's mental development, now and on down the road?


In the first two years of life, the human brain grows from about 330 grams to 1,250 grams and is already about 90% of its adult size. What can really contribute to the growth of the dendrites and glial cells within that brain - the connections that brain is forming for thinking power - is to have a stimulating environment.


Don't misunderstand - that doesn't mean that it's wise to try to force an amazingly stimulating environment on a baby, or jump-start formal schooling or memorization drills and so forth. Those are hazardous and should never be a part of a parent's course of action.


But just as "you are what you eat," a young child's mind will become what that young child has been doing. Being passive, quiet and neglected will not result in an actively exploring, questioning, talkative child, although of course there is a huge continuum of personality and temperament in the world. But what you can do is improve that passive, quiet child's environment to stimulate some of the physical and mental activity that will build the brain and keep options open for strong learning patterns.


There are two things a baby needs in particular: companionship and playthings. Ideally, there will be an adult "coaching" the child with vocabulary words, questions and directions during playtime, at least part of the time, since that stretches the child's thinking and increases the possibilities and options of the play period.


Being around other people and interacting with them is what stimulates curiosity and making connections of all kinds. Having a lot of safe, interesting and colorful items to manipulate and experiment with does the same thing. This is why animals in the wild have bigger, heavier brains than the same species of animal raised in a cage. It is why it was so horrible to find Romanian orphans who had never been out of their cribs.


Of course, any American home is going to be much, much better than a boring crib in an orphanage. Keep in mind that watching something is never, ever as good as actually doing it yourself. Forget TV as a learning tool; it just doesn't happen. But a young child with balls and blocks, car-cars and books, pans to bang on and sand to dig in, is a child who is going to be developing some good neuron numbers.




         Avoid toys that are too literal - that can only be used in one way. Cardboard blocks that can be used to build a car or a house are better than a large plastic car or a large plastic house, for example. A banana can be a phone and the dog can be a reindeer. Look for versatility.


         Store-bought costumes aren't as good as providing lengths of fabric, scraps of trims, feather boas and other textures and colors that can be fashioned by the child into the desired costume.


         It's the same thing with art supplies. Think Pla-Dough: the child decides what it will "be" that day. Give your child pencils, markers, paints, glue, craft supplies and so forth, but minimize the "canned" arts and crafts activities. Coloring books are great for scribbling and coloring practice, which builds eye-hand coordination, but plain paper is great for that, too.


         The more board games and card games you play with your child, the better your child will tend to be at math. It has to do with noticing the sequences of things, counting the number of squares to move the marker, working with the dice, taking turns, and so forth.


         Puppets and dramas are much better teachers of behavior than outright instruction.


         Whenever you're with your child playing, you should be asking questions: "How did that feel? Sound? Taste?"


         Avoid electronics and expensive gizmos. People are endlessly fascinating! Play dates with other young children are great.


Homework: There's excellent information on brain growth and how parents can provide the optimal environment for it in the book Your Child's Growing Mind: Brain Development and Learning From Birth to Adolescence by Jane M. Healy.


By Susan Darst Williams Ages & Stages 107 2008


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