Living in New Jersey,  when I hear the term infrastructure I think of potholes. There is certainly much more to infrastructure than just potholes; there are roads and bridges, gas and electric, water services and much more. A strong infrastructure is paramount for a society to run efficiently as it provides a critical foundation for commerce, communication, and communities. Of course, we can manage with a poor infrastructure. We could spend extra time traveling from point A to point B, paying more for gas, and spending needless time repairing damage to our vehicles.  It is simply better to start with a solid infrastructure, thus avoiding the need to spend additional time and money to fix  problems down the road. A strong infrastructure is also needed for optimal development of the most important members of society, our children. By age two, we can already predict third-grade reading scores, according to Megan Gunnar, Ph.D., Director, Institute of Child Development, University of Minnesota.

Early reading skills start to develop in infancy. A developing child’s brain is strengthened by the reciprocal relationships children have with their parents, caregivers, and their environment (relationships known as  “serve-and-return” interactions). Such interactions lay the foundation for a child’s strong infrastructure by building critically important neural connections needed for language and communication skills, and higher-level thinking skills. What better infrastructure can we provide for our children than laying the foundation for healthy cognitive development

According to the Center on the Developing Child at Harvard University, during the first year of life, 700 synapses are formed per minute creating connections for language, vision, hearing, and movement. These connections need to be nurtured and attended to via interactions with responsive adults. Young children without proper interactions will be at a disadvantage in many aspects of development. During the first four years of a child’s life, the part of the brain controlling language and communication has the largest growth spurt. As these pathways, or synapses, are being formed, the unused pathways are thinned out and pruned back, allowing the “used” pathways to become more efficient. Our brain interprets “lack-of-use” with “lack-of-need”,  and when much-needed pathways are not used, such as from lack of stimulating interaction with responsive adults, these rarely used yet vitally important pathways are eliminated.

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These pathways are the foundation for later learning. Without responsive and engaged caregivers providing a supportive and enriched environment, the pruning process starts to eliminate connections not being used leading to language and reading difficulties down the road. The fact is these “serve-and-return” interactions are easy and require minimal effort; one only needs to be  engaged and present. Simply interacting with your child can have huge benefits. As you read a book, point out items in the book by name, play games and make pretend, have conversations with your baby or toddler even if one of you is talking gibberish! (see YouTube video “Dad and Little Baby Talking”). The benefits are lifelong in both social-emotional cognitive development.

As a society we are quick to blame the elementary schools if our children cannot read, while in fact parents are the first and most important teachers our children will have. As responsible and nurturing caregivers, we become the foundational school that prepares our children for future learning. Live and engaged interactions provide an irreplaceable foundation, an infrastructure built on solid building blocks, with benefits to last a lifetime.  Decades of neuroscience and behavioral research have provided us the tools for early child development and the instructions for building a strong foundation. There is no better infrastructure we can provide for our children than by laying the foundation for healthy cognitive development.  

Lisa Smith, M.A. DEVM, Teacher’s College Columbia University, is an Educational Consultant specializing in customized workshops supporting child development through play. Ms. Smith is also an Adjunct Professor of Psychology at Union County College. She can be reached at Ljs2198@TC.Columbia.edu or Playlearn.net.