Talk to any toddler for more than a couple of minutes, and you will be easily reminded of how thirsty they are for knowledge and information. While humans are continuously learning, we are born with something of an empty canvas and it’s the early experiences that we encounter as babies that form the brain architecture to support that learning.
At a birthing class, Jessica Rolph was introduced to a book that helped her put the science of early learning into action with her own baby and ultimately inspired her to create Lovevery. This book was written by Dr. William H. Staso, the guest on today’s episode.
Will is a psychologist who focuses on the assessment of autism in children under 3 years old. In 1999, he published “Neural Foundations: What Stimulation Your Baby Needs to Become Smart,” a book about the experiences that form the early architecture of the brain. In it, he shares multiple ideas for learning activities and ways to engage with your baby.
[2:55] Dr. Will Staso explains what happens on a neurological level during the first 3 years of life.
[4:52] The importance of a baby’s environment to when it comes to wiring neurons.
[6:41] What parents can do to promote language acquisition.
[8:58] Will explains ways to stimulate your baby’s brain in place of flashing, noisy toys.
[10:06] Will talks about experienced-based activities.
[11:36] What does the perfect learning environment for a baby look like?
[14:10] The role of the adult and how to interact with your baby.
[15:55] Discovery learning requires non-restrictive parenting.
[17:49] Awareness of location and quantities prepare your child for letters and numbers later on.
[18:25] Learning sequences and making predictions.
[19:52] Nature or nurture?
[20:35] What does smartness really look like?
[21:45] Why is one brain more efficient than another?
[21:59] Will sums up his advice to parents.
Brain development in the first three years
Jessica: I am thrilled to have you on the show today, Will. Hi.
Will: Hi. Good to be here.
Jessica: Great. So I wanted to help people understand, our parents to understand, really spelling it out for us. Why do these first three years of life matter so much? What is happening neurologically?
Will: Well, it was a question for me as well. Growing up in my teens, I remember wondering why we were so different. One from another. And that propelled me to go into psychology as a major and both in undergraduate and graduate school. And thereafter I began working with school-aged children and I noticed that children entering kindergarten were very much different from one another, in their learning skills, their knowledge base. And so, I began working with preschool-aged children and then after that, infants and toddlers, and I realized, at that point in time, that there were a lot of similarities among infants, the way that they reacted at six months of age. One from another were pretty much the same. But when I saw them as toddlers, they were different. And so I began to research that further and I found that there was a great deal of information I was not aware of and this came from a variety of different sources. I couldn’t get it from one type of research or area of study.
But what most excited me, I think, was finding out that our brains are not developed at birth except for the purpose of keeping us alive. We have structures in the brain that are pre-programmed to allow us to suck on things, to remove our hands or body from pain, basically survive. But that, once we are in a position where we have some motor skills, we begin to take in the environment around us and that experience, that forms the architecture of the brain. While all of our brain cells are present at birth, they’re not linked up to one another. It’s like nature has provided this opportunity to form a brain that is adaptable within the environment that we grow up in.
Environment and neurological development
Jessica: So I’d love to hear more about the importance of this baby’s environment in their neurological development. You talk about it a lot in your books. I’d love to hear you flesh that a little bit more for us.
Will: The brain is going to form associations in response to the kind of experiences the child has in the environment. So if they see multiple events occurring, they’re beginning to make associations regarding those events. If they happen repeatedly, they’ll make stronger associations that those networks do become stronger in their strength. And at some point, it’ll become strong enough so they will anticipate something happening around those events that they have seen so many times. And if these associations are, enable a child to adapt more, to adjust, to predict, to make decisions about, then they are the kind of experiences that are going to be beneficial to the child, but they’re always learning. And I think that we were not always aware, thinking about how the child is learning all the time. The life that we provide for them is their curriculum before they get into the schools. And they will have a brain architecture that is extremely sophisticated by the time they get to be of kindergarten age and it’s based on the kind of experiences they have prior to then.
Jessica: Yeah, it’s so inspiring to hear that. I remember reading your book and thinking that so much happens in these early years that we can really lean in then, in those early years, and then it’s kind of like, they’re set up on a path to have really great learning and success in school and all these other things can happen if we invest early. So I think that that has been the kind of core message that I heard from you in your book.
Environmental and genetic factors
Will: There’s really an interplay between environment and genetics. It seem like genetics gives us the basics of some pre-program that we have to have in order to survive initially but leaves the door open for experiences to play a major role in the kind of architecture that we develop and that architecture again reflects our environment. It is what you’re teaching a child, what you’re showing them, what kind of experiences they have. The brain will then wire up from neuron to neuron and sets up neurons to reflect these kinds of associations so if you’re showing a child that something, a part of their environment is important and you’re showing it to them on a daily basis, they will then set up a neural network to reflect that importance and it’ll be a part of their understanding about the world and how things are happening at home.
Now, there’s a great deal of difference for instance in one area that is the language, you see children and I see them all the time having a great deal of difference in their ability to communicate their thoughts at age two, and so I have to wonder well, why is there such a difference. Some of that I think is reflected in the experiences that children have and parents can make a great deal of difference in their children’s understanding of words and their grammar, their development of grammar.
Children seem to have a readiness for learning words at around seven or eight months and they might even in some way start to ask you about what the name of something is by pointing to it or making a sound for it and it takes a while for them to begin to learn all these names of everything that might be in their environment, even in their house, and so by taking them on, for instance, house tours where they can with you encounter the names of everything in the house again and again and again setting up a routine, it adds to their enrichment of words and by talking to them as most parents do right at the beginning and should be continuing you get in a sense of the grammar of the language. So there are wide differences like I said and I think a lot of those differences have to do with the extent to which parents are communicating and narrating events in their child’s life.
Benefits of real-life experiences
Jessica: And I remember one of the things that you talked about in your book is doing these house tours which is such a fun idea and in one case you had talked about turning on and off all the lights in the house, why is that a better lesson? Then one of the toys that my son had which he played with as a baby was one of those once where he pushed a button and all of a sudden all these lights were flashing and all these games started happening after pushing one button, why is turning on and off a light switch better than that toy?
Will: Yeah, I think that children need to be exposed to real-life situations, real-life objects and dealing with events so they know how, where things are located, how they work with their functions on, how they are associated with something else, the more they understand what’s out there, real-life, the better they can then begin to adapt to their environment. And I think it has to be a routine for them so that they are going through this process again and again and again, it takes a while to set up these brain associations and structures and the more repetitions you have or repetitions you have the more solid the network becomes.
House tours and other experienced-based activities
Jessica: Yeah, and tell me a little bit more about some of the other experience-based activities, you talk about like cause and effect events, and means-end actions, and you talk about a lot of object experiences. You have all these different references in your book, can you help it come alive for listeners — what you’re talking about that happens during these house tours?
Will: And that could actually start at a much earlier age. When I talk about children needing to be aware of what goes on around them, we can for parents clarity help them realize that what we’re talking about or how things relate to one another, how objects can relate to one another, how you pour something into a container for instance that’s an object to object kind of event that the infant needs to look at because this is a part of real-life situations. If you drop an object to the floor that is a cause and effect event, gravity is going to take it down of course, but the child doesn’t come into life knowing that, what is going to happen and moreover there are variances at least to how something… How fast something will fall if you drop a balloon or a feather versus dropping a coin or a heavier object, it’s going to travel faster and make different sounds. That’s information that the infant, children around three to five months of age can then appreciate, they have an interest in, they want to see it again and again.
Role of the adults and parents
Jessica: And so I love this because it’s like treating your baby like a little scientist. So much of their world is new. And I’d love to hear a little bit more about the role that parents play in creating this environment. Can you help us like paint the picture for us. What does it look like to have this kind of optimal parent-child relationship, where we’re feeding our baby’s hunger to learn?
Will: I think that when you find it, that a baby is interested in something, then it means that if that experience of whatever it is that is they’re looking at is of value to them as well. Now, you can squeak a toy and an infant will appear to be interested, so it’s not quite that simple. You have to play the role of deciding whether or not what you’re showing them is something that’s reflecting real life and something that, if they’re making an association about, will help them in the future in some way. A squeaking toy, for instance, may catch their attention but it’s not something that’s going to be a valuable information for them as they get older and they’re going to lose the associations of its importance. So I think attending again to what is real life around them is more important.
And this is, again, everything that’s going on in your house is the first area of focus ‘cause everything is new to the child. And so, as you open a cabinet door that’s… And exposing something inside in the kitchen, it might be the dishes. That’s a novel experience for infants and it’s not something that most parents would think about doing for their child. But the child needs to know that these doors, behind these doors, there are things. Opening a closet door exposes other information, again this is novel. If you think in terms of the child not knowing any of this information, and again, I’m talking about a child who is over six months of age, they’re going to appreciate this a lot more, knowing again, how things work and where things are located, what they’re associated with, where they go.
Modeling behavior for young children
Jessica: Yeah, and I love… I remember reading in your book that, and I’ll just quote what you had written. “Frequent and sustained interactions with an adult are of vital importance to your child’s development during this age period. When he’s three or four, he will learn more on his own, but for now, he needs you and your time.” This is a lot for a parent to hear. It’s also, there’s this interplay between a push for independent play and wanting our children to be able to just be entertained on their own and foster independence and there’s even this Montessori principle of focus and really letting your child be alone with an object and study it alone is healthy for their development. Can you help us understand this a little bit more about the role of the adult as the engineer of this environment and how we should be thinking about interacting with our babies under the optimal kind of circumstance?
Will: Yeah. I think in the first five months of life since children really aren’t able to get around on their own and not move to an object and explore it on their own, that it’s pretty much up to the parents to play the role of providing information that’s useful for the infant. After that time, I think there has to be a balance between discovery learning, allowing the child to explore on his own, and providing direct experiences. Children learn a great deal from observing what their parents, brothers, sisters do. They learn how to unlock a lock by watching their parents do it surreptitiously sometimes. But, the modelling behavior for young children is, it’s probably the best way to help them to learn. And most children love to imitate, copy what their parents do.
Jessica: In one of the studies you cited, you referenced non-restrictiveness that some parents possess that is a significant predictor of a child’s later cognitive competence. So, not saying, “Okay, don’t touch that,” or, “I don’t want them to have that play in those rocks because it could be dirty,” or you name the experience. It was so… I found it so fascinating and guiding for me as a parent to read that because it helped me feel more comfortable with getting them supervised, but non-restricted experiences to help their learning. Can you talk a little bit more about that?
Will: This has to do with of course discovery learning and allowing the child to participate, engage different kinds of objects and to try to combine them in different ways. You want to enrich their environment by providing, again, the opportunity for them to have experiences with different kinds of objects, the things that are squishy, things that are hard, things that are flexible, and things that are rigid, things that had different kinds of smells. These enrich the child’s understanding of object properties and allow them to make associations that are useful in later decision-making.
Jessica: Yes, I was just thinking back on your books and thinking about how you helped me as a parent break down the different areas of learning. So, like location and space, teaching a baby. The ball is on top of or over the block, or there’s… The shovel is under the pail. Really using these kinds of location words and really emphasizing these piece areas of learning that help them scaffold into having a structure for understanding their world, it’s fun to remember about that.
Will: Yeah, I think concepts are really overlooked too much by educators and those who would suggest that we push academics to younger and younger ages. The concepts, having to do with spatial locations that you were talking about, which could be above, below, in-between, besides, and etcetera, as well as those involving numbers, quantity. This would be more and some and none. I think these concepts are extremely important, and there are many, many of them that we use on a daily basis that can assist a child to gain a better understanding of relationships well before we get into the numbers and the letters that are present in kindergarten.
Learning sequences and making predictions
Jessica: And you’ve also talked about sequences. And so, for example, when a parent gets a towel out, and out of the drawer, and turns on the faucet for the bath, that the child is starting to put together those two events and start to understand, “Okay, first, they get the towel out, then they turn on the faucet for the bath. I must be… “ They can make a prediction: “I must be taking a bath now.” And it’s that kind of nuance that you helped me understand, the nuances of what’s going on in my baby’s brain and how much they’re picking up in these kind of everyday sequences that I found so fascinating.
Will: Yeah, it’s amazing how many connections infants make during their first three years of life. How quickly they make them, they’re into the trillions. And, of course, they have to be pruned later on because some of those associations become irrelevant, but they’re always learning. They’re always forming associations. And if you are narrating what you’re doing with language, and you’re going through these routines, and it is a sequenced event that they can see happens all the time, and you’re using the words to narrate it, and they’re having a chance to feel the water or feel the towel, it becomes a multi-sensory approach, one in which they can then remember if any aspect of that experience is touched upon. If they feel the towel, then they might think about the bath even though it’s not bath time,
Nature vs. nurture
Jessica: And so, I’ve gotta ask, if you had to roughly guess. What is it, nature or nurture? And how much of who we are is really pre-determined by our genetics and how much of who we are is open to being molded by these early experiences. It’s a tough question, I know.
Will: Yeah, it’s a tough question because I think that genetics play a role pretty much in all aspects of our behavior but the research that I’ve seen more recently suggests that environment can determine whether or not certain genes or the influence of genes is even manifest. So we can override, if you will, the power that genes have through environmental experiences.
Jessica: Will, what does “smartness” really look like? What are the components of a brain architecture of a person who is really capable? What does that look like?
Will: One of the surprising findings for me in doing the research was the discovery, again, by people in more than one field that, the smarter brains, smarter people, tended to have brains that were firing less than those who were less capable. In other words, it wasn’t the amount of activity, it was the efficiency of the associations and the firing patterns that distinguished those who were more capable than those who were not. So if you have a tighter network, if you will, if you have associations, that are not irrelevant to solve the problem, that, if you know what elements do go into making a decision that is in your best interest, other people’s best interest, what are the relevances, you know those things. Then you’re going to come to a decision more quickly and with more utility than you would otherwise. And so, what makes that… Why is one brain more efficient than the other? It’s because the associational network doesn’t have to worry about extraneous kinds of thoughts or associations.
Importance of parental participation
Jessica: One last question, what advice do you have for us parents based on everything that you know?
Will: I think that parents need to realize that they are extremely important in the lives of their children in the first couple of years in particular. That the children are relying on their parents to provide them, not only just the love and care that they deserve, but also the kinds of experiences that will allow them to be more capable, more successful as students, and more capable as friends, and more capable as community leaders. It all starts in the first few years of life, and if… Your child needs you all the time, basically, and it’s a tough job. I think it is perhaps most difficult job on the planet, and that’s being a parent full-time to children in the first few years of life, but it’s very rewarding, and I can’t emphasize the importance enough of your participation.
Jessica: That’s so great, Will. Thank you. It’s been so wonderful talking to you today. Thank you so much for taking the time.
Will: It’s my pleasure.
Three episode takeaways for parents
What I love about Will’s work is that the advice is so hands-on! If you want a copy of his book, DM me at JessicaRolph. Here are some of my favorite takeaways from the interview:
1. Development doesn’t have to involve toys
Start with something simple like a house tour. Activities that help your baby’s brain develop do not have to involve a bunch of toys.
2. Expose your child to real-life experiences
Expose your child to experiences that will serve them later in life — information on how things work, where things are located, how those things are connected. Try explaining: “The shovel is inside the pail.” These explanations help them scaffold an understanding of the world.
3. Learning through sequences and repetition
Narrate sequences in your routine to expose your baby to repetitive language. Babies learn by hearing phrases over and over. For example, whenever you give your baby a bath, narrate what you are doing. “Now we are going to turn on the tap… here is the towel… it’s bath time!”
You can find more tips on language development on the Lovevery blog at https://lovevery.com/.
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