Meet The Brain Architects

  • January 21, 2020
  • /   Shannon Nickinson
  • /   early-learning
A brain

Build a brain, build a life.

That’s the philosophy of the early learning work that Studer Community Institute does. 

It comes from the idea that a child’s life should not be predetermined by their ZIP code or the economic circumstances they were born into. That a child’s life can be built for the better — every day, in every way, in choices large and small that the adults in their lives make.

It also comes from the idea that the future is what we make it — for every child.

That also seems to be the philosophy behind a new podcast from an advocacy center at Harvard University’s Center on the Developing Child, highlighting the science of early brain development.

It’s called “The Brain Architects.” The host is Sally Pfitzer. It’s linked here. 

“From brain architecture to toxic stress to serve and return, The Brain Architects will explore what we can do during this incredibly important period to ensure that all children have a strong foundation for future development,” the Center’s newsletter notes. 

The first episode is called: “Brain Architecture: Laying the Foundation.” In it, experts in brain science, social policy, education and early childhood advocacy talk about how genetics and environment together walk hand in hand to shape a child’s healthy brain development. 

They also share how cognitive skills and social-emotional skills are equally important to healthy development — for school-readiness and life-readiness. 

And that supporting parents and families is a critical piece of helping young children have a strong foundation.

Their words of wisdom: 

“Brains are built over time,” says Dr. Jack Shonkoff, director of the Center on the Developing Child. “Any building begins with a strong foundation. If the foundation is strong, the building will last a long time, and if the foundation has a crack in it, or it’s weak, the building may not fall apart, but you won’t be able to build on it very much over time without having to deal with some of the weaknesses. 

“Think of the building communities where multiple houses are built, that they’re all exactly the same. But then people move in, and they bring their own decorations, and they’re own style to it, and every house that’s built with the same basic design ends up looking very different.”

How much of brain architecture is built from your genes, and how much of it is influenced by the experiences a child has?

“Genes determine when circuits get built,” Shonkoff says. “Experience, individual differences in people’s life experiences determine how those circuits get built.”

Early is better, but it is never too late to build and strengthen the connections in the brain.

“There are no perfect brains. The best parents in the world do a dozen things wrong every day. It is never too late to strengthen the brain’s capacity to do things,” Shonkoff says.

Dr. Judy Cameron, professor of psychiatry at the University of Pittsburgh.

“The brain is genetically programmed to make connections, but whether those connections stay, become strong, and are permanent and there for the child to use their whole lifetime, depends on having experiences that strengthen them.”

Giving parents real-life, practical examples of how to this is key. 

She spoke about a brain architecture game she has played with more than 12,000 people to help bring home the roots of how brains are built. The game uses pipe cleaners and straws to build connections in their brain. The players draw life experiences cards that determine what kinds of stressors and connections their “brain” will be exposed to.

She recalled doing this exercise with a group of lawmakers.

“One legislator came in the room, and he said, ‘I’m going to build a fantastic brain. I really care about children, and I’m a good architect.’ And I said, ‘Excellent.’ And then, his brain collapsed. And when I asked him what happened, he said, ‘Oh. It wasn’t my fault,’ and I didn’t say anything. I just looked right at him, and he said, ‘Oh, my gosh. That’s what you’re trying to teach us. It’s not the children's fault.’”

Debbie LeeKeenan, an early childhood consultant and former director of the Eliot-Pearson Children’s School at Tufts University. 

What can teachers, parents and families do: Play, interact and relate.

“Young children learn through everyday play and exploration in safe and stimulating environments, and with relationships with their families, teachers, and caregivers. Young children learn when they’re using their whole body and senses,” LeeKeenan says.

Dr. Pia Rebello Britto, the global chief and senior advisor for the Early Childhood Development Program Division at UNICEF. 

“Ultimately, as we know, for these positive experiences to occur between children and their caregivers or parents, these adults in the child’s life need time,” Britto says. “Policy makers, employers in the business sector, all of them create the right policies and enabling environment to then give the parents that time, that space, the resources they need. Their understanding of brain architecture, and the value it holds and how it occurs, is very important, then, to enable parents to engage in what they love the most, to engage and interact with their children.”

UNICEF’s Early Moments Matter campaign helps drive this message home, Britto says. 

“The essence of Early Moments Matter is that babies’ brains are built and they need the active ingredients. They need to eat, play and love. They need care. They need protection.”

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