Brain development expert Pat Wolfe is an author and consultant who helps guide educators in the U.S. and abroad. She has been the director of instruction for the Napa County Office of Education, and a lead trainer for the International Principal Training Center in Rome and London.
Her book, “Brain Matters,” reflects 20 years of her research, most of which has centered on the educational implications and applications of current neuroscience, cognitive science, and educational research for teaching and learning.
Not afraid to stir up controversy — so long as it is based in fact — Wolfe is well known for telling it like it is when it comes to helping parents know what is best for their children. Following is a Q&A that Be Inkandescent Magazine’s editor Hope Gibbs had with the well-known child development expert.
INSIDE A BABY’S BRAIN:
A Q&A with development expert Pat Wolfe
Be Inkandescent Magazine: We understand that you are concerned with the growing number of parents who are worried about getting their children into the best “academic” preschools to ensure they do well when they begin their formal schooling. From your point of view, what is going on?
Pat Wolfe: Yes, it’s a trend that took root several years ago and continues to happen. Here in California, and across the U.S., I’m hearing that some parents are even signing their babies up for school before they are born!
Given the research on early brain development, trying to create a “super baby” or “super child” doesn’t make sense. In fact, it runs counter to what we know about how a child’s brain develops.
Be Inkandescent Magazine: Can you tell us about the origins of this surge of interest in the early years?
Pat Wolfe: In the past decade, we’ve seen an explosion of information in the field of brain research (neuroscience). No longer the mysterious “black box,” as once was thought, researchers can actually see what is going on inside our skulls while we interact with our environment. This is especially fascinating when it comes to brain development in young children.
Be Inkandescent Magazine: Does this have to do with the belief that a baby’s brain is a blank slate?
Pat Wolfe: Most certainly. But in recent years, scientists have discovered that learning begins before birth (babies are born recognizing their mother’s voice and music they heard while in the womb). We also now know that young children learn faster than was ever thought possible. In fact, in the first three to four years the young child’s brain develops connections (synapses) between cells at an amazing rate, one that will never be duplicated again during the child’s life.
Be Inkandescent Magazine: Do you think parents are misinterpreting the message?
Pat Wolfe: Unfortunately, yes. This information has been thought by some to mean babies and young children need extra stimulation during this critical period. This is not only an over-simplification of the research. It is simply not true.
Be Inkandescent Magazine: It has been said that since synapses represent learning, the more synapses a child has the smarter he’ll be. Is that true?
Pat Wolfe: No. In truth, the brain overproduces connections in the first two years, and an important part of learning and development is to prune away the unnecessary ones. Babies are born with millions of cells that potentially allow them to pronounce the sounds of every language spoken in the world. However, only the connections for sounds of the language they hear everyday are strengthened. The ones not used are simply pruned away, which allows children to understand, and eventually speak, the language spoken at home.
Be Inkandescent Magazine: Isn’t it true that enriched environments are essential during the early years to develop a child’s brain to its fullest potential? Does that mean flash cards and other stimulating games are beneficial?
Pat Wolfe: Actually the opposite is true. Excessive use of flash cards, workbooks, language tapes and “educational” computer games is not only inappropriate, these games deprive children of the natural interaction with their world so important to development.
As Stephen Meltzoff states in his book, The Scientist in the Crib, perhaps the question parents need to ask is not: What is the effect of the environment on the brain? But rather: What is the effect of a deprived environment versus a normal or an enriched environment?
Be Inkandescent Magazine: This is a real game changer.
Pat Wolfe: It is, so let’s be really clear. First, let’s consider what is a deprived environment. We know the ability to speak a language is lost by about age 10 if children, because of deafness or lack of exposure to language, do not master this skill in their early years. Being raised in a severely impoverished environment can cause a child’s emotional growth to be stunted, as reported in the studies of Romanian orphans. Fortunately, most children are not raised under severely deprived conditions.
Be Inkandescent Magazine: Does an enriched environment somehow change a child’s development? Is it really better? Can we produce “super babies?” Or are high-priced toys marketed to frantic parents a waste of time and money?
Pat Wolfe: The bottom line is that there is no proof extra stimulation is necessary for cognitive or social growth. Rather, too much activity may result in over-stimulation and damage to a young child.
Be Inkandescent Magazine: What is a better solution?
Pat Wolfe: Parents need to take the simple approach and read nursery rhymes and books by Dr. Seuss to the child. They are ideal because they introduce children to sounds that are alike, which is a natural introduction to beginning phonics.
Educators need to explain to parents that the human brain is innately curious and designed to learn. Young children are driven to master their world. Hands-on play is best because it gives children a chance to explore their own interests with the support of involved adults.
Be Inkandescent Magazine: So, is TV evil?
Be Inkandescent Magazine: Ha. No, it’s not evil. And Baby Einstein is not horrible. But raising a happy, healthy child is a matter of finding balance. Mostly, children need models of appropriate social interactions and a physically and psychologically safe haven in which to grow up.
Given a rich, varied, natural environment, this will happen without a lot of intervention. I believe parents know instinctively what they need to do to raise their kids well. They simply need to relax and trust their own intuition.