Monday, April 9, 2018

Playing for Brain Power

Credit: Gareth Wild via

The clip above is of a toddler methodically disposing of important family items by shoving them through the pet door. While I am sure the family is happy to have solved the mystery of the disappearing TV remotes, this toddler’s fascination with the pet doors is its own mystery.

This lovely young scientist is conducting a series of experiments that not only inform her brain about three dimensional shapes fitting through holes, but also help to develop her thinking skills for future learning.

This is what play is all about. Play not only helps a child to understand the world, it also develops executive function skills that are necessary for problem solving. In this clip the toddler is practicing focused attention, she is remembering which sizes fit and which do not, called divided attention, and she is working on something called cognitive flexibility.

The PBS show NOVA: Bird Brains reported that scientists in one experiment found birds left to play with shapes and containers developed flexible thinking that allowed them to solve complex puzzles for peanuts. The birds that had not been allowed to play typically gave up on the puzzles and abandon the peanut reward. Here is a clip from that show:

PBS NOVA Bird Brain

The lesson for us as parents is to remember that God designed the brains of children to grow and learn while they are moving, playing and experiencing their world. We want to be careful to not stop this process. Children need to be up and about, inside or outside, playing, exploring, and practicing trial and error. If we stop them because we want to “teach” them a skill, keep them quiet with a screen, keep the house perfectly clean, or keep them a bit too safe, we will interrupt that process.

Children need to play. It is the single best thing for brain development, language development, and emotional development. It is also the best way to prepare your child for school or any other kind of learning.

So put away those screens. Send your children outside. Let them entertain themselves. They are developing brain skills.

Wednesday, March 7, 2018

When Your Child Walks Away

Serve and return is an interesting parenting concept. It is how we teach almost anything to our children. We serve information to the child, the child returns it back, and we respond again. It is a process that allows the child to process information, give the new skill a try, and get feedback.

It starts in infancy with coos and smiles that begin a child’s lessons on learning language and human interaction.

It continues through childhood as children are able to engage in conversation. They learn to negotiate, they learn to ask questions, they learn to apply new information and it all centers on that parent . . . child . . parent . . .child  back and forth interaction. We think they are not listening to us, but they are. It is just that learning happens slowly and deliberately and it needs repetition; lots of repetition.

But what about a child, a tweenager, or an adolescent who rebels? What if we have proof they did not listen? What if we have the same conversation over and over again? What if they walk away and refuse to talk? How does serve and return work here?

The beauty of serve and return is that the lessons start early and build one on top of the other. The self-regulation you taught your toddler is still tucked away in your teenager’s brain. The discernment you taught your school-age child is still a part of the confusing tweenager you see before you. Even if you don’t think they are listening, or heeding your words, you still need to keep on serving that communication and love. It does sink in. You will just not always see evidence of the wisdom you have been trying to teach.

It is much like how we are in our relationship with God. He tells us over and over, again that He loves us, that He protects us, that He has our best interests at heart. What we return is not always the trust and reverence God deserves.

Yet, God still keeps on loving us. When your child does not seem to be learning what you are trying to teach – keep on loving – keep on praying – keep on sharing your faith.

My sheep hear my voice, and I know them, and they follow me. I give them eternal life, and they will never perish, and no one will snatch them out of my hand. My Father, who has given them to me, is greater than all, and no one is able to snatch them out of the Father’s hand. I and the Father are one. John 10:27-30

Sunday, February 25, 2018

Be a Good Model

Your body might tell you that you are what you eat, but your brain will tell you that you are what you experience.

The baby in this clip is a good example of the brain seeking to model what it experiences. Eventually, assuming the baby does not experience other humans routinely howling, he will stop mimicking dogs in favor of following the actions of family members. His brain creates a temporary “howling” neural connection that is later re-purposed for something more useful.

This clip reminds us as parents to occasionally take time to examine what our children see in us each day that they might be creating neural connections for. What children see and experience is what their brain will prioritize for learning.

Do our children see us making healthy food choices or sneaking snacks?

Do they see us physically active or on our phone?

Do they see us coping with sadness and anger or allowing ourselves to vent?

Do they see us learning from mistakes or hiding them?

Do they see us complaining or working to make things better?

Do they see us including faith in every aspect of our lives, or saving it for Sundays?

We do not need to be perfect parents. Our children learn good things from us when we make mistakes, apologize, and try again. In fact, sometimes the most enduring lesson is learned when a parent makes a mistake and seeks to learn from the mistake. In this action you are teaching resilience.

The best things to model for your children are acts of faith: mercy, forgiveness, worship, the seeking of God’s word, and unconditional love.

Therefore be self-controlled and sober-minded for the sake of your prayers. Above all, keep loving one another earnestly, since love covers a multitude of sins. Show hospitality to one another without grumbling. As each has received a gift, use it to serve on another, as good stewards of God’s varied grace. I Peter 4: 7b-10a.