Border Mail column Wednesday 18 April 2012
Recently in a shopping centre I watched a mother and her three children who appeared to be aged about one, four and seven.
The younger child was in a stroller being steered by the older child, while the mother held the hand of the middle child and was engaged in a robust conversation on her mobile phone.
There was a look of resignation on the older child’s face, as if she knew that to interrupt her mother would not bring her any attention.
I’ve witnessed scenes like these many times: young children out with their parents with no real interaction between them as a phone or text conversation continues.
I always feel a little sad that the opportunity to chat with the children as they walked along was lost.
On another day, I saw a group of mothers with their babies aged about six months at outside tables at a coffee shop.
The mothers were engrossed in conversations and cappuccinos and some of the children became restless on their mothers’ knees.
I could hear comedian, Kitty Flanagan’s observation that children do become bored in coffee shops because “kids don’t like cafes”.
What kids do like, and what is important to their brain development and more importantly their brain elasticity, is one-on-one time with mum, dad or other caregiver on the floor playing.
The Benevolent Society’s research project, Shaping Brains: Shaping Communities, found that child’s play is essential for brain development.
It also stressed the importance of identifying interventions to help children overcome learning difficulties, trauma or negative early life experiences.
Project Manager Sheryl Batchelor concedes that there are many myths around brain development that can confuse and overwhelm parents, but there is strong evidence for adults to play games with their children to build strong neural pathways in both the children and them.
According to Ms Batchelor and many other researchers, the brain’s ability to change is lifelong; however, the most critical period is in the early years.
In a snapshot of the research, brain development represented by a tree, shows that the “roots” of motor skills, reactivity and sensory processing need to be well developed before a child starts school.
“If a child arrives at school with well developed roots and a strong trunk then they are well able to adjust to the school environment and ready to learn – a strong trunk and root system
are precursors to the strength of the branches. However, if the trunk and roots are not sufficiently developed, the child may lack the skills to learn.”
Their inability to develop these “root” skills can result from the child experiencing “bottlenecks” in their learning.
The research shows it is better for children to practise skills as part of their everyday lives rather than have them as a supplementary program.
When my seven-month old grandson was visiting recently I was reminded of how quickly babies learn.
It didn’t take him long to work out that if he turned the large silver knob on the amplifier it changed the look of the display and the music disappeared.
The greatest delight, and perhaps more for me than him, was to sit on the floor with him and play with toys of varying shapes, sizes, texture and noisemaking.
It took me back to playtime with his dad and uncle, devoid of the distractions of mobile phones and other electronic gadgets.
But what amused me most, was to see his delight when he took plastic containers out of a sturdy gift bag and banged them on the kitchen floor; something he can’t do in a cafe sipping a babycino.
Shaping Brains: Shaping Communities snapshot here
Radio National Life Matters interview Tuesday 18 April: Closing the gap – interview with Co-ordinator Shaping Brains Program Early Years Centres, Sheryl Batchelor and Dr John Boffa, Central Australian Aboriginal Health Congress. Listen here