Monday, April 18, 2011

Our Children

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April is the month of some very special remembrances for me.  This year, we celebrate Easter in April.  It is the month of my only niece's birthday.  It is the month in which we remember our youngest folks with the celebration of the Week of the Young Child.  And, it is Child Abuse Prevention Month.  Springtime and children, they seem to just naturally go together, don't they?  Yesterday, the children paraded down the aisles of our church singing "Hosanna" and waving their palm branches.  I love that and I remember doing the same thing when I was young.  I didn't really understand what Easter was about, not really, but I knew it was a time of celebration.

That's what Week of the Young Child is about.  Last week was that celebration in which everyone who works with young children celebrated with activities and reminders about the importance of those first years of a child's life.  We now know, from all the research done on the brain, that the first five years of a child's life are the most important in the development of their brain.  You see, our brain is like a big electrical circuit box.  From the time we're born, what happens around us and to us, creates those connections that, if stimulated enough, will become circuits that will serve us for the rest of our lives.  If those connections are not made, then there will be portions of our brains that don't fully function, like an electrical cord that hangs from the outlet.  There may be a little energy pulse that gets through, but it won't shine brightly as it would if it were plugged in securely.

Researchers did a study many years ago now, in which they followed a group of children from Romania.  Remember back in the 80's and early 90's when people from the US were encouraged to adopt children from the Romanian orphanages?  Those facilities were so very full of children that they were like warehouses; large rooms with bed after bed after bed lined up.  No light was ever let in because the staff was just so busy feeding all the babies and making sure they were changed and clean.  These children were kept alive, barely, for years.  And one major connection in their brain was never completed. 

Because their eyes had never seen the light of day, these children were blind.  Physically there was nothing wrong with their eyes, but the neurons that would allow the brain to understand the difference between light and dark had never been initiated so the children were blind. 

Everything we do with our children promotes those connections.  The more senses we involve in their learning, the more they will remember and store in their little heads. (Remember your five senses:  see, taste, touch, smell, and hear)?  When we read to them, when we sing to them, when we take a walk or even when we just hold them, connections are made in their little brains.  And when we do these things over and over again, those connections grow stronger and stronger, just like re-charging your batteries.  Children need a variety of activities and I'm not talking about teaching reading, writing and arithmetic to babies and toddlers.  I'm talking about teaching them nursery rhymes.  Did you know that the language and the rhythm actually light up both sides of a child's brain, initiating connections across the two hemispheres?  They have pictures of the brain in which you can see the neurons lighting up on both sides.  It's truly amazing!

I'm talking about sitting with your child and reading a book (even if you've read it one hundred times already).  Take a walk and name the things you see.  Let your child help you in the kitchen and talk to them about what you're doing.  Kids love to help!  Everything you do is a learning experience for little children, whether you intend it to be or not, so "talk them through it."  Just tell them what you're doing or for very young kiddos, just give them names of things.  Lay in the yard and watch the clouds.  Make up word plays.  My son and I used to make up rhyming words.  Of course, later I wished I'd never taught him how to do that, because he wanted to do nothing else, but his use of language has always been remarkable and I'm sure that it goes back to that word play we did early on. 

What it really comes down to is this:  don't assume that your children will learn things.  Of course, they will pick up some things along the way, but what they really need from their parents and the adults around them is a world full of language and fun in which both sides of their brains are stimulated, the creative and the analytical, by the activities and events of their lives.  When we do this, we are laying the firmest of foundations for the rest of their lives.  What better gift can we give to our children?

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