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Kick Back, Relax, and Help Your Children Develop Neural Pathways

A child plays with a Playmobil toys at the Playmobil FunPark adjacent to the Playmobil Malta factory in the Hal Far Industrial Estate outside Valletta April 14, 2014.

Imagine six, red, three-by-two LEGO bricks. How many unique combinations can be made? This was the opening question posed at the LEGO Foundation's IDEAs conference in Denmark last month. Less than 50? 100? 1,000? The last was my guess, which it turns out, is not even close. There are almost 1 billion unique combinations possible.  Wow, is right.  I was amazed not only that someone had sat and figured this out (how long do you think it took them?), but also at the seemingly endless possibilities that unfold for children playing with such toys.

I was attending the Lego Foundation IDEA conference in search of ideas that could be useful for education policy in developing countries, the focus of my work at the Brookings Center for Universal Education. But, in truth, I spent the most of time thinking about my own kids.

Will my two young boys grow up to be “creative problem solvers?” Many experts, including Tony Wagner at Harvard, say these are exactly what 21st century employers need, and have a hard time finding. It’s true that, for both work and life, the traditional approach of mastering content knowledge is not as useful as it was B.G. (Before Google). Instead, Kathy Hirsh-Pasek and Roberta Michnick Golinkoff, well-known early childhood specialists, argue that today’s young people must complement content knowledge with skills like collaboration, communication, critical thinking, creative innovation and confidence. With the total corpus of information doubling every two-and-a-half years, our children will only become successful adults if they can readily adapt to new circumstances and make meaning from new information. 

The early learning experiences of children are crucial to helping them develop these skills. One conference presentation, by the neuroscientist Randa Grob-Zakhary, showed images of a child's brain from birth until age 6, and I couldn't help but think of my own boys, ages 2 and 5. Each picture showed scattered black dots, or neurons, which we don't really get more of as we grow. However, what does grow, and quite dramatically, are the pathways between the neurons. Slide after slide, as the few lines among the black dots in a young infant’s brain grew to an ever increasing tangle of connections in a toddler and young child's brain, I became increasingly anxious. A child’s adult capacities, it seemed, rests heavily on neural foundations developed through early learning experiences. With each slide, I thought about what my own kids were experiencing at the time: "that was the year of the new job, I probably wasn't as attentive as I should have been," I thought to myself.  Next came "the year of the divorce," then "the year of the inattentive nanny." The final slide put me over the edge. It compared the brain of 6-year-old and an adult, and it was hard to discern any difference visually between the two—both showed a thick forest of black lines between the neurons. Ms. Grob-Zakhary did point out that of course children's brains continue developing after age six, but the early years matter and they matter a lot.   

I went into the next sessions of the conference deeply worried.  Had I done enough to give my boys quality early learning experiences?  I thought of my busy work schedule, my lackluster showing in the race to sign them up to activities and classes, set up play dates, and take them to any of the often-free, kid-friendly, and I was sure, neural-pathway-inducing, events that Washington, DC offers. Then the guilt set in.  Why hadn't I paid closer attention to the early childhood development literature that my colleagues at Brookings know so well, or for that matter to Hillary Clinton, the world’s most high-profile early childhood advocate who frequently talks about the importance of brain development in young children?  

Thankfully, a later session remarkably bolstered my mood.  An evolutionary psychologist named Peter Gray spoke on the merits of free play, where children play on their own with limited adult intervention. Play is how all mammals’ young learn. Our children need the freedom to test their limits, discover new things, figure out how to interact with others, fail and bounce back, and solve problems.  Free play, in other words, is incredibly effective at developing those neural pathways and laying the foundations for the skills our children need. Limiting free play not only undercuts one of the effective ways in which children learn, but also has a negative impact on children’s well-being. Yet over the last 60 years, the amount of time children in the U.S. have for free play has gone steadily down.  Over the same time period, the rise of emotional and social disorders in young people has risen dramatically (five to eightfold for some disorders). American children today feel much less in control of their lives than their predecessors.  Substantial time for free play, particularly among children of different ages, is an important part of enabling children to learn to control their lives and become resilient and adaptable adults.

I latched onto Gray’s words immediately, and quickly sought him out afterward.  Here was something I could do to help give my boys quality early learning experiences.  My kids already free play quite a bit, and now I can feel less guilty for the “go play out back while I make dinner,” and “go play in your room while I finish this report.” Gray’s talk left room for a number of things I could do without upending my life. I could hover around my 2-year-old less at the playground, give my 5-year-old more choices of activity on the weekend, and intervene less in their arguments. I could focus more on ensuring they were reasonably safe and not hurting each other and less on directing their activities or interactions. Offstage, Gray and I came up with the idea of what I call “neighborhood playdates.” Since letting kids roam freely on the streets is not an option for urban parents, organizing times for neighborhood kids to get together and play with minimal adult direction or intervention seemed like a good approach. Children could be dropped off several afternoons a week to play in a park or other area supervised by a “grandmother-type and a teenager-type,” one providing wisdom and authority and the other energy and mobility. Here is something that not only I could do but parents with access to much fewer resources than I, including those in the developing world, could do too. Perhaps, I thought, starting small with immediate neighbors and two parents or caregivers was the way to begin. 

In the end, I left the conference feeling pretty good about myself as a parent and excited to think about new ways to let my children explore their world.  I know free play is only one of a mix of things that children need for quality early learning (guided play, developing a talent, having responsibility, among others).  But perhaps I hadn’t totally screwed up my boys’ chances for quality early learning experiences. Perhaps I should relax. I called a friend, another mother of two young boys, when I got back from the conference and told her “have a drink before dinner and watch the kids play together in the yard, it will be great for developing their neural pathways.” I thought I would do the same. 

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