Monday, April 9, 2012

Your Child's Growing Mind

The most recent book that I finished is called Your Child's Growing Mind by Jane M. Healy.  I highly recommend it to any parent.
Jane Healy is a teacher, author, and lecturer who has worked with all ages from pre-school to graduate school.  She holds a Ph.D. in educational psychology, and did post-doctoral work in developmental neuropsychology.  She also has raised three children and has 6 grandchildren.
In this book, she explains how the mind of a child learns. She starts at birth and goes through adolescence, and she give lists of specific activities you can do with your child at each stage to encourage brain development.
Some issues she discusses are appropriate toys, what to look for in a pre-school, the importance of fantasy play, the importance of movement, the dangers of trying to push learning of higher-level skills too early, activities that use both the left and right brain hemispheres, language, IQ, memory, motivation, and creativity.  She also includes many specific activities for fostering reading, writing, math, and science.

There is so much great information in this book, but I will try to focus on a few ideas.  Since my children are almost two and 5 1/2, I was most interested in the information pertaining to 2-6 year olds.

If I had to choose the most interesting thing that I learned from this book, it would probably be that teaching higher level skills, such as reading, at an earlier age is actually often detrimental rather than helpful for brain development.  Healy states, "Forced learning of any type may result in the use of lower systems, since higher ones have not yet developed. . . The 'habit' of using inferior brain areas for higher level tasks (such as reading) and of receiving instruction rather than creating patterns of meaning can lead to difficulties later in organizing information into abstract patterns."  So how can you tell if your child is ready to learn to read? She says that when you are reading to him, he will ask "What does that say?"  Some children will do this at age three. Others not until age 7.  Of course, if your child attends public school ( or most private schools, as well) in the United States, he will be taught to read in Kindergarten, most likely when he is 5 years old, and will most likely learn to do it.
One of the things she recommends is to steer clear of workbooks and other "learning" materials that teach rote-level academic tasks such as letters and numbers.  "Until age 6 or 7, a child's "work" is to develop the basis for abstract thought by mastering his physical environment and by learning to use language."  She says that workbooks are inappropriate for children under 6.   I was shocked when I first read this. I had been giving Aiden workbooks starting at age 4 and he usually enjoyed them.  I thought I was doing the best thing I could for his brain development. I now know (from reading this and several other sources) that his time would have been better spent on make-believe play, climbing on playground equipment, or singing songs and making rhymes. ( Not that he didn't do that, too - I just didn't realize the profound importance these have on brain development.)

Which brings us to another very interesting thing that I learned: that movement plays a key role in the brain development of children.  I always knew that exercise was important for children's health and I've always believed that being outdoors is good for the soul, but I didn't realize that activities such as spinning and balancing actually exercise parts of the brain that are used in academic learning (the cerebellum).  Nor did I realize that climbing in, on, around, and through things give a child a sense of his place in space, which is important later on in learning math.  Or that throwing, catching, and climbing promote coordination of the two sides of the body (and therefore, the two hemispheres of the brain), which is important for building intellectual skills.

Healy also explains the importance of dramatic play for young children. Playing pretend isn't just about having fun. She describes fantasy play as "the gateway to metaphor, scientific insight, and invention."  She states that dramatic play teaches social skills more effectively than any other type of instruction. Children who are good at pretend play also generally get along better socially.

Some other topics from this book that I would like to discuss include choosing caregivers/pre-schools, fostering creativity, and the best toys for brain-building in young children.  However, this is a lot to talk about, so I will include this in my future posts.

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