Thursday, December 23, 2004

 

So when your kid screams, "Buy me! Buy me! Buy me!" you're actually doing him a favor

As long as you buy him the right stuff.
Toys have lasting impact on brain
Toys that stimulate a young child's mind could permanently boost their brain function, according to research.


Scientists found skills learned very early in life may trigger permanent changes in the structure of the brain. The findings, based on a study in owls, underline the importance of choosing the right toys for children, even at the earliest stages of life. The study, by Stanford University, California, is published in the online edition of Nature Neuroscience.

So-called educational toys have been popular for many years, and most parents buy them to give their children a head start at school. But the latest study shows they may also bolster the parts of the brain used to make decisions later in life.

Lead researcher Professor Eric Knudsen, an expert in neurobiology, said: "This work shows the importance of investing in childhood experience. Early learning can have long-lasting effects on the architecture of the brain."

Parents are expected to spend a staggering £1.8bn on presents for their children this Christmas, the equivalent of £150 per child. Books, computer games, games consoles and mobile phones are among the top sellers.

But the latest research suggests buying stimulating gifts for young babies could be money well spent.

The Stanford team have carried out earlier studies showing young owls quickly acquire new skills that leave older owls baffled.

In their new experiments, they wanted to see if they could still remember those skills when they become an adult.

The study focused on one part of an owl's brain that uses sounds to help it hunt. It does this by creating a kind of map from the sounds that an owl hears, like the squeaking of a mouse, or the rustling of leaves. The owl then uses that map to know precisely where to hunt for dinner.

Researchers fitted owls with special glasses that shifted the world to one side, disrupting the map structure that is imprinted on their brain. When the owl peered through the glasses, a squeaking mouse located off to one side appeared to be straight ahead. The owls got confused and the prey escaped. To get round the problem, the owl's brain gradually generated a new auditory map that matched the skewed image the glasses provided. This allowed it to hunt successfully once again.

When the glasses were removed, the owl's brains reverted back to the original map.

But the crucial finding was that, when the glasses were put back on when the owls had grown up, they were able to remember what they had learned as young babies.

Professor Knudsen said learning new skills very early in life prompts neurons in the brain to build new connections that still work into adulthood. He said toys that beep, crinkle or need prodding and poking are all likely to shape a child's brain for future tasks.

Professor Janet Eyre, a specialist in paediatric neuroscience at the University of Newcastle-upon-Tyne, said stimulating toys are vital to help the brain wire itself properly during childhood, when it has the capacity to change its structure. "There is very good evidence that, in the early stages of development, the brain is much more plastic. It has a genetic blueprint that gives it some rules on how to wire itself. But at various stages it also responds to environmental cues and it uses its experiences to shape itself for the future. Toys provide motivation and boost learning. It's important to spend time playing with them when the brain is very plastic because it likes to do things so that it can learn."
That's all well and good, but how many humans hunt rats and voles for food?

Seriously, this is a fascinating study, especially the imaginative way they tested their theory. And I'm guessing that most video games don't provide the right kind of stimulus. I doubt books do, either, although books are vitally important for other reasons. But creative toys probably do the trick. Blocks, dolls, toys that squeak and give you visual and aural feedback, toys that aid physical development (balls, bats, jump-ropes, climbing things, etc.) - play is crucial work for children, the most important thing they can do.

This makes child labor seem even more tragic, for kids put to work too early never develop their brains as they might. Poor countries may need th labor, but they need the creative development of their human resources even more. They are selling their future for some very short term present benefit (and not even very much of that.)
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