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Best way to build children’s brains: play with them, researchers say

June 26, 2006
Courtesy Stanford University Medical Center
and World Science staff

Playing with your young children is the best way to make them into smart adults, researchers say—beating trendy toys, classes or music as a brain-building strategy for preschoolers.

(Courtesy N.Y. State Dept. of Health)

Children’s foremost need is a secure relationship with an adult who loves them, said Eric Knudsen of the Stanford University School of Medicine in Stanford, Calif. “It’s all about playing with your child,” he added.

A paper appearing in the June 27 advance online issue of the research journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences details the findings, by Knudsen and three other members of the U.S. National Scientific Council on the Developing Child.

The council, based at Brandeis University in Waltham, Mass., is a group of 12 scientists from across the United States in the field of early childhood development. 

The paper draws on past research in economics, neurobiology, developmental psychology and public policy. The authors said that working independently, they concluded that the earliest years of life forever shape an adult’s ability to learn. 

The capacity for change in the foundations of skill development and brain circuitry “is highest earlier in life and decreases over time,” the authors wrote. A child’s eventual ability to learn calculus or a second language, Knudsen said, starts with brain cells shaped by positive interactions with nurturing adults, well before school begins.

Jack P. Shonkoff of Brandeis, chairman of the council and a co-author of the paper, said lawmakers should take heed, as skilled jobs are moving from the United States overseas and a growing percentage of its workforce is raised in disadvantaged environments. 

“With all the attention currently focused on K-12 education reform and job training for adults with limited skills, this paper said that the biggest bang for the buck will come from investing in the earliest years of life,” he said. “It’s not about the toys, it’s about the human connection.”

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