Notes on Parenting

Insights for parenting babies, toddlers, teens, and young adults.

Thursday, April 21, 2016

Babies Have Social Brains from a Very Young Age


When thinking of a child's development, we often discuss areas as separate entities--cognitive, social, emotional, etc. If you are a parent, you've probably seen that all these areas of develop are really closely linked. For example, once your child can crawl (motor development), that opens up a whole new world of learning and exploration (cognitive development) because they can move themselves into new areas. 

In the research world, understanding these connections between different aspects of develop are very difficult to study. A small child obviously cannot explain to you what they are thinking as they move in a new way or explore a new toy. Thanks to technology, however, some advances in understanding are happening.

In a recent study of 7-month-olds, babies were fitted with a electroencephalography (EEG) cap so that researchers can measure their brain activity. The babies observed an adult reach for one of two toys. Then the babies were given the opportunity to reach for either of the toys. What the researchers found was fascinating:

- while watching the adult reach for a toy, sometimes the motor system part of the babies' brains would activate

- in other cases the motor system part of the babies' brains would not activate while watching an adult reach for a toy

You can probably imagine what the babies' next actions would be based on their brain activity.

- babies whose motor system activated during watching, would go on to grab one of the toys

- babies whose motor system did not activate during watching would not imitate the adult and would not grab a toy

What does this really mean for children's development? It essential means that scientists are beginning to show that babies (even as young as 7 months of age) understand another person's actions while they are watching them. They understand the intent of the person's actions. Furthermore, their social brain and motor brain are linked enough to know that they can imitate the other person's action.

This study is just the most recent addition to a growing body of research showing the connections between cognitive and motor development. Researchers have also found a link between the development of reading skills and fine motor development. 

What we are really seeing is that moving is learning. These two aspects of development interact and feed one another. This raises the question again of the role that physical activity must play in the education of children at all ages. Numerous studies have shown that students who are more physically active during the school day (e.g., amount of recess time) tend to do better in academics. 

As parents, then, our responsibility is to allow our children as much opportunity for movement at all ages. This becomes more difficult once our children are in school for many hours a day. This means looking beyond organized sports and thinking about movement, play, and development from a new perspective


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