Learning Our Lessons about Early Learning

Article excerpt

Those crib mobiles with their dancing colors and those kaleidoscopic cloth book, s that are meant to be a baby s first are not what my very young grandchildren enjoy. For these babies, the world is like a television from the 1950s - strictly black and white.

What seems like a rather bland way to begin life (and a burdensome restriction on grandparents' gift buying) has been deliberately chosen by my highly educated (sometimes, perhaps, overly so) daughter, who reads the research about babies. "Black and white is what stimulates their coordination," she tells me emphatically.

Such nuggets of information, as reluctant as older generations may be to accept them, are evolving into momentous breakthroughs for parents, schools, and scientists in understanding how young children learn. By the end of this month, the whole country ought to know a lot more because of the events surrounding the broadcast of a documentary directed by award-winning filmmaker Rob Reiner.

Scheduled to be shown on the ABC network on April 28, Reiner's film takes advantage of both brain research and a growing number of national reports on the importance of the early years. If new research continues to build in the direction already outlined by previous studies, the impact on the use of resources and on education in general will be profound.

Reiner put the issue starkly in speaking to the National Governors' Association (NGA) at its winter meeting in Washington, D.C. By age 10, he told the governors, "your brain is cooked." In other words, the brain's elasticity, its capacity to put structure around the process of acquiring and using knowledge, is pretty well set before the elementary grades are over.

What's more, the period of greatest brain development comes very early. It is not third grade, when last-chance efforts to learn to read are what's most important. It is not even age 3. A more propitious time for learning is age 3 months. In light of this understanding, it should not have been surprising when the late Ernest Boyer reported in 1991 that almost all kindergarten teachers across the country (88%) believed the children entered their classrooms with moderate to serious problems related to the richness of their language. And 43% of the teachers believed that children were less ready to learn than their counterparts had been five years earlier.

Boyer's report, Ready to Learn, was followed in 1994 by the Carnegie Corporation's Starting Points, which focused especially on the first three years of life. It was the first national report accessible to a wide audience (i.e., not a researcher's tome) that explained clearly the nature of brain growth and the importance of early stimulation.

Brain cells are in place at birth, Starting Points says, but the interconnections between them have, by and large, not been made. These connections, or synapses, form the brain's physical "maps" that allow learning to happen. In the fast few months after birth, the synapses develop at a tremendous rate, a rate that slows down later. Reiner's reference to the "cooked" brain of a 10-year-old is a way of saying that the process of forming synapses has slowed considerably by then.

Scientists know that nutrition, both prenatal and immediately after birth, can significantly affect brain growth. In addition, they now have evidence that nurturing - the development of an infant's secure relationship with an adult - stimulates the brain to develop physically. Children who experience this nurturing and the corresponding changes in brain chemistry show "far less aggressive behavior later on," Dr. John Constantino of the Washington University School of Medicine told a recent seminar on early childhood learning, sponsored by the Education Writers Association (EWA).

This message was delivered even more dramatically to the NGA by Dr. …