Brain development in the early years is child's play

“Henry-Steven look at me. Where are your ears?” says Louise.

The three-year-old who was previously rushing outside to get his rugby ball, lost over the fence, pulls at one of his ears and looks up at his mum. Like generations of kids, hearing his full name is a clear sign that mum is serious. Having found his ears, he’s now listening.

“What did I say. We can get the ball later. There are lots of other toys to play with.”

With some gentle encouragement, he finds a truck that will do for now, but it’s clear the rugby ball isn’t forgotten.

We’re at Tiny Jandals, a Plunket playgroup in Mangere. It’s loud – children like Henry and his younger brother Jobe running around together and playing with brightly coloured toys. Ride-on trucks are a favourite, as is shrieking. By the big cheeky grins on their faces, they’re as excited by finding out what their voices can do, as the toys around them.

But something we can’t see or hear is also noticeable – the warmth and friendliness felt instantly when you walk inside.  

Louise has ‘three kids under three…’ Jo and Henry-Steven charging around the room in their matching red basketball tops and black shorts, while her 8 month old daughter Ofeina plays on the floor, transfixed by a soft toy the colours of the rainbow.

When Louise says that she likes coming here to get out of the house and have a bit of a break, it’s easy to understand the difference it makes.

“It’s a safe space for them to play, and it’s really local, we live just five minutes away. I’ve met mums here who live nearby, my best friend has a baby the same age as Ofeina, and we met here,” says Louise.

As any parent will tell you, being at home all day with little ones can sometimes get lonely, and Tiny Jandals is one of over 150 Plunket playgroups across the country giving parents like Louise a place to go to spend time with other families.

Family activities and playgroups - like the one Louise and her children go to - are an opportunity to focus on connections, both with the child and with others in the community, says Plunket's Karen Magrath. 

“Taking time to be present with our children costs us nothing and the benefits from this are priceless. Being touched, held, sung to and talked to, builds the bond that connects a child in a positive way to a loving caregiver. Favourite ways of spending time together will be different for all families and it is especially important in the first thousand days to spend time where the child is the focus – where their enjoyment or unpressured learning is all that it’s about.”

Keryn O’Neill, a Senior Researcher from the Brainwave Trust, agrees. The Brainwave Trust was set up in response to scientific evidence on the impact that experiences in the early years have on the brain development of a child. Kerryn says play is one way children learn about the world in their early years: “A huge amount of brain development is happening in these early months and years, which lays the foundations for later development, and much of this happens through a child playing. It really doesn’t have to involve toys at all – your baby may be playing with their toes, while you’re having a cup of tea nearby. It’s more about the child exploring their own interests, sometimes on their own, but often with parents or siblings.”

“Going to a playgroup means children are getting social interaction and exposure to other people for an hour or so, but with their important people there for emotional support. They’re having those introductions to a wider group to people, but in a small dose that they’re more likely to benefit from in those early years.”

She says play can help develop the bond between parent and child: “A parent and child playing together can develop their relationship – an example would be playing peek-a-boo, when the parent is attuned to the child and the child enjoys the game, they’re learning the serve and return interactions that are important for language development, for example. If the game’s going well, the child is getting the message that she’s worthy of someone spending time with her.”

And the significance of this? “Parenting really is the most important job in the world - the experiences that babies and young children have in those early years lay the foundations for their future. Parents spending time playing with their child are doing a great job because they’re helping their brain grow.

“This is a blunt way of understanding it, but when we are born our brain weighs approximately 400gms and is about a quarter (25%) the weight of an adult brain. By one year the brain is nearly 70% of the adult brain weight, and by 3 years it is about 85% the weight of an adult brain. There’s a tremendous amount of brain development happening in the early years; but how the brain develops depends a lot on the experiences that a child has.”

Like the experience of walking in to a Plunket playgroup, it's what’s happening under the surface that's making the difference.

Find out more from the Brainwave Trust:

Learning is Child’s play

Feeding your baby’s brain

Wiring the brain

Rethinking the nappy

by Jen Riches 23 February 2018

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