For Children, Early 'Touch' has Staying and Growing Power

Small hands grasp your nose as you stare down at the tiny miracle in your lap. You read focus and amazement in your baby's eyes as he/she scans your skin and features, tugging curiously at your ears and hair. It may all seem like quiet, peaceful fun, but the attachment your baby is making with you through touch is preparing his/her brain for a lifetime of learning.

A baby's brain is the least developed organ in his body at birth, but it grows to 80 percent of its adult size in the first three years of a child's life. That's well before most kids experience any kind of formal schooling. 

This developmental golden age literally paves the way for the future, as neural pathways and connections pop to life in response to experiences and sensations the child is exposed to. While each of us is born with the genetic blueprint to produce the physical matter of a brain, the hardwiring of how it functions grows in response to what happens to us.

Katie West, a training consultant and expert in learning and development, recently gave a lecture at The Urban Child Institute, the first in a new series exploring the Institute's Touch Talk Read Play initiative. 

"The brain is the common denominator that we all share," said West. "But we all go through a different set of experiences and life lessons, and that's what fills our brains with tools and abilities. These toddlers, running all over the place, they are just sponges soaking up everything, growing their brains." 

Focusing on Touch in the lecture, West made clear connections between tactile and sensory experiences in children three and under and academic, social and professional success later in life. She said it is through physical contact that young children make attachments with the adults that play key roles in their lives, adding that these attachments act as anchors in the child's life. 

"Attachment needs to grow between the baby and multiple adults," said West. "Attached children tend to think of the world as a safer, more comfortable place, and tend to find greater levels of success later in life, both at school and work, and with healthy friendships and relationships."

For parents and caregivers, this early period of rapid growth presents a perfect opportunity to give your baby a head start on education. 

"This isn't always easy, though," warned West. "People have complicated lives and time gets away from all of us."

Luckily, it can be very easy to turn everyday moments into tactile learning experiences, creating strong attachments. Touch-based learning doesn't always mean human contact, either. New textures and materials are a boon to brain growth, and can be found everywhere.

 "The more safe things that we can put in their little hands, the better," said West. 

During mealtime, your baby will spend as much time squeezing, smearing and flinging the pea puree as eating. This is great; he/she's learning much from this mess. The brain is calculating the difference between the warm and mushy food and the hard plastic bowl, one of almost infinite tiny calculations that inform babies about the world they're been born into. Baths and diaper-time also offer great touch-based learning opportunities.

 "Let him know he has toes down there that he hasn't seen yet," said West. 

Even with school still a few years away, young children are learning at an astonishing rate. Born into the world a perfectly blank slate, the baby and toddler meets every new experience and sensation with the same mental hunger, soaking in huge amounts of information. 

All of this sensory input is physically changing the brain, preparing your child for life as kid, as a teenager, as a college student and beyond. They aren't yet studying George Washington Carver, but they are learning from the peanut butter. They are a few years away from understanding H2O, but they are learning how to splash in the bath water and what it means to be wet. They won't be dissecting frogs for a few years, but they are learning profound lessons from petting the cat. They are decades away from having children of their own, but they are already learning how to raise and nurture them just by sitting in your lap.

By Matthew Timberlake

This article is reprinted with permission from The New Tri-State Defender. The New Tri-State Defender has partnered with The Urban Child Institute to make sure every child has the best chance for optimal brain development during the critical first three years of each child's life. This is one in a series of stories and columns in our campaign.

The Urban Child Institute's Touch Talk Read Play lecture series continued on Wednesday (Sept. 7) with the Talk installment. The Read lecture will be held Sept. 14, with Play the following Wednesday (Sept. 21). All programs will be held at noon, at the Institute, 600 Jefferson Ave. in Memphis. Open to the public, reservations are encouraged. Call Katy Spurlock at (901) 385-4233 or email to enroll or for more information.

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