When stories began to appear in the media in the early '90s about the troubled children many families had adopted as babies from orphanages in Eastern Europe, many readers were surprised to learn that child development experts blamed the children's emotional and behavioral difficulties on neglect and lack of attention over just the first few months of life. Since then, the interest in early childhood development has reached a new high, and scientists have uncovered a great deal of fascinating new information on what happens in a child's brain in the first months and years of life. But most parents aren't sure exactly how they can apply these discoveries to benefit their own kids. In their new book, Magic Trees of the Mind,/i>, brain researcher and child development expert Marian Diamond and science writer Janet Hopson not only explain in clear and accessible terms just what we know about how a child's mind develops but also give parents a practical program of enrichment they can follow with their children beginning before birth all the way through adolescence.
Diamond and Hopson explain that for many years, scientists assumed that the brain was a static organ it was not until the 1960s that researchers proved that the brain, specifically the cerebral cortex, can and does change and grow in response to stimulation and experience. And at no time is this process more active than in childhood, when the brain is specially primed for absorbing information and learning skills. The science of brain enrichment grew out of these discoveries, and Diamond is one of itsleadingresearchers.
Describing research on both humans and animals, and drawing on case studies and parent surveys, Diamond and Hopson take the reader through each stage of a child's development, starting from the moment conception occurs and continuing through adolescence. At each stage, they explain how and why the young brain and mind is changing, and how the process can be impeded or encouraged. At the end of each section, Diamond and Hopson offer parents and educators a detailed and creative "enrichment program" suited to each age level, beginning with the prenatal months. They write that babies and toddlers, for example, will benefit from having vision stimulated with mobiles and posters with strong, clear patterns, and suggest putting together special boxes designed to stimulate babies' other senses (through parent-supervised exploration), such as a texture box with objects like smooth stones and a feather, a smell box containing a pinecone and a bottle of vanilla extract, and other boxes containing objects of interest for the sounds they make, for their colors, for their shapes, and so on. Other aspects of the program for parents of this age group include playing particular games, lots of talking, gesturing, and reading of stories, and providing safe and fun opportunities for exploration. Advice and similar specific suggestions are provided for preschoolers, grade schoolers, and teenagers. A useful resource guide, with listings of helpful books and articles, organizations, online information, catalogues, and sources of enrichment products, and recommended enrichment tools including specific books, toys, games, and computer software for each age group, is provided in an appendix.
A final chapter addresses the implications of enrichment research for our educational system, and for our society and culture in general. "Poor prenatal care, malnutrition, inadequate emotional nurturing, and an unstimulating home environment can all influence brain development dramatically," Diamond and Hopson write. "It is safe to conclude, then, that poverty is also an important risk factor for failing to reach the brain's potential. For this reason, deliberate enrichment could be seen as one powerful way to help break the generational cycles of poverty and despair." Food for thought indeed. Kate Murphy