Month: May 2018

Athletic Talent: Every Child’s Birthright

By Charles Solis / May 29, 2018 / Comments Off on Athletic Talent: Every Child’s Birthright

OK, so I’ll come right out and say it. We believe that every child, providing they have an intact brain, has the potential to become an athlete. Indeed, based on the science and our experience, we are absolutely convinced that every child can become an athlete. Let’s take a look at elite athletic performance a little closer so I can show you what I mean and why.

2018 is turning out to be quite a year for watching extraordinary athletic skill on display. It started off with my beloved Philadelphia Eagles stunning fans of American football with their wonderful display of athleticism and grit as they surprised everyone and won the Super Bowl. Then there was the Winter Olympic Games in South Korea earlier this year. Then, Philadelphia’s Villanova Wildcats basketball team steamrolled every opponent they faced to win the NCAA championship. And this summer, the best football (soccer) players in the world will test their skills at the FIFA World Cup in Russia.

When we watch athletes perform at such a high level we marvel at their technical skill, balance, coordination, stamina, and strength. Even those athletes who fail to medal or make the starting team are inspirational to watch because all of them are operating at a level of physical ability that most of us can only dream of reaching. Or are they? Is their talent for skiing, snowboarding, ice skating, running, kicking, throwing, something that is available only to a small number of gifted people? Or are all of us potentially capable of performing at high levels of physical excellence? If so, what does it take to get to the highest levels?

To answer those questions we need to look beneath the surface of the athletic performance because there is far more going on than meets the eye. What most people don’t realize is that for every one of these athletes, behind the scenes, there is a highly developed and finely tuned brain directing those bodies. We have such a tendency to think of the brain only in terms of its cognitive or intellectual prowess. This became very clear to me a few years ago when my brother suffered a stroke that left him with significant motor problems while his cognitive abilities remained intact. Despite the loss of motor function, which is only possible because of the brain, many people said to me that it was a relief to know that his brain wasn’t damaged! What?!!

Of course, there are good reasons for our focus on cognitive function.  In comparison with other mammals, our abilities to create, reflect, analyze, and communicate are unmatched. We can’t say the same thing about physical ability. The elephant is stronger than the strongest human. The cheetah, at 70 mph, can easily outsprint even the fastest of Olympic sprinters. Gold medal winner, Usain Bolt was clocked at just under 28 mph in his fastest race so the cheetah easily doubles his speed. The point is that when it comes to specific physical skills like speed and strength we’re really not so special. So it is easy to take human mobility for granted.

What is beautiful about sports and athletic endeavors, in general, is that they spotlight the combination of human mobility with human cognition and the incredible level of brain development necessary to make those sports possible.

My father was a gymnast so I’ve long been a fan of Olympic gymnastics. Many years ago I taught gymnastics to very young children. The combination of coordination, balance, kinesthetic awareness, strength, speed, agility, and flexibility needed to perform gymnastic routines is mind-boggling. However, what I really appreciate about the sport is how it combines all of those physical attributes with extraordinary creativity. For a stellar example of this, check out this gold medal performance by Epke Zonderland (Netherlands) on the high bar in the 2012 London Summer Olympics. It was so spectacular that it left the crowd gasping in awe and compelled his two closest competitors to embrace him in admiration.

“Practice doesn’t make perfect.

Practice makes myelin, and myelin makes perfect.”

Daniel Coyle, The Talent Code

This is brain development and organization at its highest level. What all elite athletes have in common is that they are devoted to developing their brains. Most likely, very few of them are even aware that this is what they are doing. But that is the bottom line. It all boils down to the basics of good brain development.

If you’ve been following this blog this will sound quite familiar. If not, check out my post on Harnessing Brain Plasticity. The use of function with increased frequency, intensity and duration results in increased dendrite growth, increased neural connections and increased production of myelin. Translation? Practice, practice, practice. Try, fail, make corrections, and try again. This is neuroplasticity in action. It creates the neural pathways required for learning new skills and cements those skills into memory. This is how you grow the human brain!

So where does that leave your kids and the rest of us who are not elite athletes? Well, surprisingly, provided that our brains are functioning well it leaves us in pretty good shape. The truth is that each of us is capable of being his or her own Olympian. Our objective is to give children the opportunity to develop to their full potential whatever that might be. We do that by ensuring that their brains are well developed and functioning well. Two things are required. First, we must develop the function of mobility along the ancient progression (tummy crawl, creep, then walk) that is most advantageous for both good brain development/organization and good physical function. Second, we must use the function of mobility with sufficient frequency, intensity and duration. Do that and your kids will be in good shape. They’ll have the coordination, balance, stamina, and strength to enjoy any athletic endeavor they choose. They’ll have athletic talent.

I’ve said this before but it bears repeating. Does this mean that every child will grow up to be a superstar? Not at all. But becoming a superstar in any endeavor, especially in childhood, isn’t the objective. At least it shouldn’t be the objective. It’s certainly not our objective. Our contention is that every child is born with the birthright to be an athlete, not an Olympian. There is a big difference between having talent and having superstar talent. How far a child takes their physical talent will depend on things like their passion for a particular sport, their individual motivation (not your motivation!), their level of discipline, the kind of coaching they receive, etc. Our job and your job is to give them the springboard from which to launch. If we do that well they’ll have tons of physical options to choose from and we’re perfectly happy to let the kids decide where their athletic talent leads them!

The Best Mat for Tummy Time – Tumbl Trak Mat

By Charles Solis / May 22, 2018 / Comments Off on The Best Mat for Tummy Time – Tumbl Trak Mat

Coach John Wooden, former head basketball coach at UCLA, won ten NCAA national championships in a 12-year period, including a record seven in a row.

Coach was fond of saying that it’s the little details that are vital to creating success on the court and in life.

His wisdom also applies to the development of young children. I’ve got a little details tip for you today that can make all the difference in getting your little one’s mobility off and running… or should I say crawling?

Assuming that the brain is functioning well, every newborn baby is an athlete in the making. The mobility pathway that eventually leads to elite physical performance begins at birth and what happens in the first year of life is critically important.

In the early months of life the main mobility objective is to develop good head and trunk control and for your baby to become comfortable with being in the prone position (on the tummy). But the grand prize is crawling on the tummy for transportation. And this is where paying attention to little details can make a huge difference.

Crawling on the tummy is difficult work! Your baby has to move across the floor with the entire torso in full contact with the surface. Naturally, this causes a lot of friction, thus making movement more difficult. To the extent we can reduce friction, we can make crawling easier. Try crawling on a plush carpet compared to a linoleum floor and you will see what I mean. So, what to do?

 

Little Details

“It’s the little details that are vital. Little things make big things happen.” Coach John Wooden, UCLA Bruins

The answer lies in the little things. In order to facilitate movement we need to minimize friction with a surface that is smooth (like linoleum) and firm, but not hard. We’ve done the research and tried all kinds of surfaces in our work with children who have mobility problems. The best product we have found for them and for little babies is the Tumbl Trak Tumbling Mat. It is smooth, firm (but not hard), colorful, measures 4 ft x 8 ft and folds neatly for storage. The mat comes in two thicknesses, 1-3/8 inch or 2 inches.

For little babies, the thinner mat is perfectly adequate. If you’d like to use the mat for tumbling when your child is older, then the 2 inch mat is the way to go.

Many parents place their babies on cloth baby gyms or soft foam ABC play mats or tiles. These may be cute and comfortable but they are entirely unnecessary and make movement more difficult, not easier.

Cloth baby gyms usually have a mobile overhead so parents tend to place their baby on the back so baby can see the mobile. That’s nice for vision but it interferes with mobility because babies move on the tummy not the back. You can however place your baby on the tummy when using the cloth baby gym. And when your baby needs a break from tummy time you can flip her over and she can enjoy the mobile. You can also use it in conjunction with the Tumbl Trak Mat to provide an incentive to move forward.

Foam ABC play mats or tiles make for a cute room decoration and they cushion falls nicely but they also make movement difficult because they have a rough non-skid texture which creates friction. We want to reduce friction, not increase it.

You have to be careful how you use this kind of equipment. Our advice is don’t waste your money on things your baby doesn’t need especially if they interfere with good brain development.

The Tumbl Trak Tumbling Mat is not cheap. So, think of it as an investment in your child’s future. Nothing influences human brain development and organization more than mobility. How that mobility happens in the first year of life is critical to everything that follows. Your investment will pay huge dividends for years to come.

If you decide to purchase this mat we recommend placing it outdoors for several days to a week so that the vinyl covering can outgas. Once you’ve done that you are good to go. Let us know how it works for you and feel free to write with questions.

 

Kickstarting Mobility

By Charles Solis / May 15, 2018 / Comments Off on Kickstarting Mobility

We are often asked, “What is the most important thing that I can do for my child’s brain?”  The answer may surprise you. Put your child in the prone position, which is to say, on his tummy! That’s it. No fancy, expensive toys or equipment. No mommy/baby classes. No iPads. All you need is a comfortable surface and the time to be with your baby. This one practice will do more for your child’s brain than anything else you can do. Put him on his tummy! Pretty simple, right?

So, let’s dive right in and talk about tummy time. Parents are sometimes aware that giving their child tummy time is a good idea but they are almost never told how to do it or why it’s important. It is one of the reasons that most parents avoid it like the plague. And, unfortunately, many children are paying a price for that.

Tummy time is one of the most important developmental opportunities you can give your baby but it has to be done right. We’ll start with why it’s important and then talk about how to do it.

Why do Tummy Time

Did you know that when you place your baby on her tummy (prone position) you are not only developing her muscles but you are also developing your baby’s brain? The development of the function of mobility begins with time spent in the prone position, tummy time.

We define mobility as follows – the function we use to transport ourselves from point A to point B. The key word in that definition is transport. Mobility is useless as a function, it serves no purpose, unless it is directed towards something. That something is transportation. Developing good mobility is not complicated, but it is extremely important. Why?

All forms of mobility, including tummy crawling:

  • Facilitate brain organization
  • Increase production of myelin
  • Increase production of BDNF (brain-derived neurotrophic factor) – a protein produced in the brain during physical activity. Neuroscientists call it “Miracle-Gro for the brain” because of the proliferation of new neurons and dendrites produced whenever it is found in high concentrations.
  • Develop the senses of vision, hearing and tactile ability
  • Increase muscle strength
  • Improve coordination and balance
  • Improve posture
  • Develop breathing

Mobility is key to brain organization because the brain works as a holistic system. Everything affects everything else. Primitive brain structures are connected to higher level brain structures. As in any system, it is important that each component of the system functions well for the entire system to function well.

This concept is important to mobility’s role in brain organization because the only time that human beings use all functions simultaneously is when we are moving. Every time we use an ability, we are using and developing our brain. When we move, we use vision to see where we are going. We use hearing and receive information about our position in space by way of the inner ear. We feel our arms and legs moving through our tactile sense. We use our hands when we crawl and creep. So mobility is, in a very real sense, the glue that holds all other functions together.

There are many ways a baby can learn to move but not all of them foster good brain development and brain organization. Keep in mind that we human beings are designed to start moving for transportation on our tummies and not on our backs or our bottoms! The natural progression that all babies should experience is to begin by crawling on their tummies, then to progress to creeping on their hands and knees, then to stand and cruise (often holding onto furniture), and finally, the grand prizes of walking and running.

So, what are the best practices to make tummy time enjoyable and successful for your baby and you? We’re so glad you asked!

 

How to do Tummy Time

 

When to start?

Provided your baby is healthy, begin right from birth. Why? Because when done correctly, babies who are placed on their tummies right from birth learn to enjoy tummy time. You want your baby to enjoy tummy time. Your baby should enjoy tummy time.

In the below video of my granddaughter, she is already having a tummy time session at 3 days of age . You’ll see that even at only a few days of age she is already comfortable on her tummy.

If you have not started tummy time from birth, no worries. The beautiful thing about the human brain is that we can always make up for missed opportunity. The first step is to recognize the importance of the opportunity. Begin now and follow the steps below.

 

Be present

Always be with your baby when doing tummy time! When placing your baby on her tummy, always be with her so you can see her face, she can see yours, and you can pick her up as soon as necessary. If you have your baby on a mat on the floor, lay down on the floor next to her. Doing this will reassure your baby that you are always there for her no matter where she is or what position she is in. That will make her happy. And if she’s happy, you’ll be happy.

 

Surface

For now, aside from being clean and comfortable, the type of surface on which you place your baby is not very important. What is important is that you want to make sure there is nothing around the baby (sheets, blankets, clothing, etc.) that she can pull onto her face, thus potentially affecting her ability to breathe. So, a comfortable mattress covered with a clean sheet works just fine.

 

Dress

When it comes to tummy time and learning to move, remember that less is more. You want your baby to be dressed appropriately for the ambient temperature in the room. So, if the temperature is warm perhaps barefoot with just a t-shirt and a diaper will work just fine. If the temperature is on the cooler side perhaps you will want to dress your baby in a onesie or pajamas with her feet covered. Do what you think is right for the temperature. The one thing you do want to pay attention to is that the clothing should not in any way interfere with your baby’s ability to move her arms and/or legs. Provided she can move freely, you and she are in good shape.

The below video is of my grandson doing tummy time at one week of age. It’s a good illustration of all of the previous points – always being present, a comfortable surface, and appropriate dress. And, there’s a great little bonus towards the end.

 

Frequency

In our last blog post about the second law of brain development, we talked about the importance of using the correct frequency, intensity, and duration for whatever activity we are doing with a child. For a child with an immature brain (either because of chronological age, brain-injury, or lack of development), the frequency of any activity should always be high. Whatever it is, you want to do it often.

So, you want to use high frequency. You should place your baby on her tummy at every opportunity – many times throughout the day whenever she is awake. Logical exceptions to this are when nursing or bottle feeding, changing her diaper, or just spending time snuggling. A good way to get in the habit is to roll your little one over onto her tummy after every diaper change.

 

Duration

Going back to our post on the second law of brain development, when dealing with a child with an immature brain (either because of chronological age, brain-injury, or lack of development), the duration of any activity should always be kept short.

So, you want to use short duration. Your baby may fuss a bit at first and that’s alright. Pick her up as soon as she begins to cry or complain too much. Talk to her, kiss her, and as soon as she is happy again place her back on her tummy. The sessions might begin with just a few seconds, but if you do it frequently enough your baby will be comfortable on her tummy. Stay attuned to your baby and if she is getting tired and fussy, stop. Eventually, you will know the right duration. As your baby gets more and more comfortable, develops good head control and gets stronger, the duration should increase.  

 

Motivation

Since we are all born with a genetic imperative to move, most babies need very little motivation. But motivation never hurts. In the beginning use brightly colored toys, bright contrasting pictures, toys that play music and/or have bright lights. Place them just out of your baby’s reach. Move them slowly from one side to the other.

 

Use language

This is a good time to talk and sing to your baby. Have a conversation with her. Tell her how much you love her, how proud you are of her efforts. She wants to hear your voice! All children love music. Tummy time is a good time for you to sing to her. This will have the additional benefit of getting you in the habit of talking to your child and talking to her is the first step to developing understanding.

One more video of my granddaughter, this time at just shy of 6 months of age and already beginning to crawl for transportation. This clip shows nicely how by paying attention to all of the points in this post a child can be well on the road to independent mobility within a few months.

As you can see, creating good mobility really requires only three things:

  • placing your child in the correct (i.e. functional) position
  • providing an environment that makes movement safe and easy
  • giving your child ample opportunity to move

It’s that simple!

Celebrating Mom!

By Charles Solis / May 13, 2018 / Comments Off on Celebrating Mom!

Since Mother’s Day is celebrated today throughout much of the world, we want to shine a big spotlight on the critical role mothers play in the process of a child’s development. The importance is so much broader and deeper than most people realize.

Mom’s job begins early! Shortly after conception, before she even knows that she is pregnant, the mother becomes her child’s physiological regulating system. This means that throughout the nine months of pregnancy, mother’s and baby’s biorhythms, heart rates, hormonal balances, sleep patterns and many other physiological systems are locked into mutually beneficial, reciprocal bonded patterns. Whatever happens to one has an effect on the other. Mother’s body provides the sensory and biochemical environment that shapes the baby’s brain. Because of this, the state of the mother’s own body, in relation to her environment, is mirrored in the baby’s developing brain and nervous system. When a mother feels safe and is nurtured, her baby’s brain reaps the benefits. When a mother feels unloved or unsupported, is threatened, anxious, and fearful, her baby’s brain suffers.

What begins in pregnancy continues and expands dramatically at birth. Nature simply assumes that the relationship that started at conception will remain throughout the first years of life. How a mother is able to fulfill her role as her baby’s physiological regulating system affects how her baby’s brain develops and thus affects the baby’s future.

Mother is, and always will be, her baby’s first and most influential teacher.

Nature intends that direct intimate contact with mother’s body will provide the pleasurable stimulation, the emotional nurturing, and the essential nutrients needed for her baby to develop a normal and healthy brain and nervous system. This means that decisions regarding issues like feeding and sleeping arrangements are very important and need careful consideration. Modern culture tends to rule in favor of decisions that separate mother from baby and the consequences of this decision may be greater than we think.

Consider breastfeeding. Breastfeeding is part of nature’s magnificent design for getting this whole process started. It is important for the baby’s development for many reasons – ideal nutrition for human growth and development, antibodies for a strong immune system, skin to skin tactile stimulation which affects all motor function and cements emotional bonding, and what neuroscientists refer to as the “mutual gaze”, a fascinating exchange that takes place most effectively during breastfeeding. The “mutual gaze” is that moment when mother and baby’s eyes are locked in a visual dance of tender mutual admiration. It’s a moment that has been celebrated in art throughout history. It turns out that all of those artists were on to something important. Brain imaging studies show clear evidence of a surge of activity in both mother and baby during these exchanges. We now know that the baby’s developing emotional intelligence is greatly affected by the number of such exchanges in early life.

The same thing can be said for so many of the other ways in which mother and her baby are designed to interact. In everything from sleeping arrangements to daily care and child rearing, nature intends for the mother to be in close proximity to her baby so that she can respond to the baby’s biological and physiological needs in a timely and loving manner.

Another reason that mother is so important is that she is, and always will be, her baby’s first and most influential teacher. Nobody understands her baby in the way she does and nobody ever will. Instinctively, mother knows exactly what her baby needs and when he or she needs it. It has always fascinated us how extremely effective the maternal instinct is. In our work with brain-injured children, the first question we ask when taking a developmental history is, “Who first suspected that something was wrong in the child’s development?” If you look at over 40 years of our histories you will find that 90% of the time the answer to that question is either mother or grandmother. The truth is that mothers almost always know. Unfortunately, professionals often disagree with mother’s suspicion, causing her to mistrust her instincts and brush her worries aside. The result is that far too often precious time is lost because when mothers are able to trust their instincts they are rarely wrong.

So, as we celebrate Mother’s Day this weekend, take a moment to be mindful of the beautiful ballet being performed by mothers and their babies and marvel at the paradox of simplicity and complexity that it represents. Nothing can quite replace the nurturing touch and love a mother provides for her baby. Through this tireless and wonderful dedication to her little one, she nurtures all of humanity.

Happy Mother’s Day to all of you wonderful mothers!

 

 

 

Harnessing Brain Plasticity: The Second Law of Brain Development

By Charles Solis / May 8, 2018 / 2 Comments

“Practice doesn’t make perfect. Practice makes myelin, and myelin makes perfect.” – Daniel Coyle, The Talent Code

In our first blog post about the science of brain development, we established  that the brain grows through use. You will remember that, just like with muscles, it does so because it is subject to a very basic law of nature that says that function determines structure.

When we say that the brain grows through use, we are saying that its physical structure actually changes in the form of new neurons, new dendrites, new synapses, and… new, critically important, myelin.

Myelin is a substance produced in the brain that is composed primarily of omega-3 fatty acids. Ever wonder why everything from Corn Flakes to milk to eggs are now marketed as “enriched with omega-3 fatty acids”?

Well, now you know. It’s because science has proven that omega-3 fatty acids are important for your heart and your brain. That’s right, fat (the right kind of fat) is good for the heart and the brain. Indeed, not only is fat good for your heart and brain, it’s essential! Oh, and you don’t actually need to buy foods “enriched” with omega-3’s in order to get what you need… but that’s another story.

Myelin is critically important because it serves as a conductor of electrical impulses. Neurons connect to each other via a structure called the axon. Myelin covers the axon of each neuron in layers. You can see it in the drawing below labeled as the myelin sheath. Every time a neural circuit is fired, more myelin wraps around the axon on that circuit. The more myelin you have the faster information can travel from one neuron to the next.

Think of it this way, myelin does for your brain what the fiber-optic cable did for your internet connection. Back in the old days of dial-up modem connection, the internet was accessible but the connection was unreliable. It took time to connect, often the connection would drop, and even when there was a good connection it took a long time to transfer a small amount of data. That all changed with the fiber-optic cable. The connection became reliable, fast, and huge files of data could be sent at lightning speed.

Broadband internet allows a quantum leap in the efficiency of the internet communication system. The same thing happens in the brain when there is plenty of myelin. It creates a neurological superhighway built for speed.

Knowing that myelin is so important, the next logical question might be what is the best way to help the production of myelin? Indeed, what is the best way to grow the brain?

The answer lies in the second law that governs brain development, a basic law of neurology that says: in order to increase the transmission of nerve impulses across the central nervous system, you must increase the stimulus in frequency, intensity, and duration.

One more time… in order to increase the transmission of nerve impulses across the central nervous system, you must increase the stimulus in frequency, intensity, and duration.

First, let’s break that down and translate it into easy to understand concepts.

  • Increase the transmission of nerve impulses – This simply means accelerating the speed with which a message is sent and arrives at its destination.
  • Across the central nervous system – This is another term for the brain. The human nervous system is divided into two parts, the central nervous system or brain; and the peripheral nervous system or the entire network of nerves outside of the brain that convey information into and out of the brain via the spinal cord.
  • Increase the stimulus – This means all sensory/environmental input that reaches the brain via the peripheral nervous system. This input is in the form of visual, auditory, tactile, olfactory, and gustatory information. Which is to say the things we see, hear, feel, smell, and taste.
  • Frequency – How often the stimulus is sent.
  • Intensity – How bright, large, colorful, loud, strong, etc., the stimulus is.
  • Duration – How long, in terms of time, the stimulus lasts.

Again, the second law of brain development says: in order to increase the transmission of nerve impulses across the central nervous system, you must increase the stimulus in frequency, intensity, and duration. Yep, you’re right… that’s frequency!

Here’s how it works. Remember that all information coming into the brain does so in the form of electrical energy. In order for a message to register in the brain, its electrical energy must reach a certain threshold, known as the action potential. Without getting too complicated, the action potential is part of the process that occurs during the firing of a neuron. Either the threshold necessary for firing the neuron (the action potential) is reached or it is not. This is known as the all or none law. We can ensure that the threshold is reached by paying attention to the frequency, intensity, and duration of the stimulus.

We apply the second law of brain development in a number of ways. As a general rule, when the brain is immature (either because the child is young or the brain has been injured and is therefore not developed) we place more importance on the frequency and intensity of an activity, and the duration is kept short. As the brain matures we shift the emphasis and, over time, the frequency and intensity will decrease as the duration increases. Specifically, with regard to duration, imagine reading a book to a six month old versus a four year old. The six month old will listen attentively for a short while but soon enough she is interested in other things. Whereas, the four year old will sit for the entire book and then ask you to read it again, or read another, and then another, and then… you get the idea!

We use this principle every day in our work with children and young adults who have developmental and functional difficulties due to brain-injury or poor brain development. When brain function is compromised by injury there is a barrier of sorts that forms between the brain and the environment thus making it much more difficult to reach the threshold necessary for triggering the action potential to fire neurons. For this reason, the normal amounts of stimulation (which are quite adequate to develop a well functioning brain) are entirely inadequate for developing the injured brain. If this were not so then the problems of children who struggle would be solved very easily.

However, by applying this basic law of brain development carefully, we can accelerate development in the brain, often enabling the child to overcome the effects of their original injury or poor development and develop functions that previously were impossible. This is one of the reasons that there is always hope for children who have difficulties in development. The possibility of growth is built into the system!

For the child who has an intact, well functioning brain, application of the second law of brain development simply guarantees that the brain will grow as it should. As the child grows and develops it provides the basic framework for the development of all ability. Author Dan Coyle writes eloquently about this in his excellent book, The Talent Code, where he looks at the development of talent in a variety of endeavors, everything from sports, to  music, to writing ability. His conclusion is that the bottom line for the development of any talent is brain development.

My wife is from Brazil so I particularly like Coyle’s examination of the reasons behind the astounding proliferation of talented soccer players from Brazil. Essentially it boils down to how Brazilians introduce the sport to children when they are young, the effect this has on the development of their young brains, and the level of skill they develop as a result.

Brazilian children never actually play on a real soccer field until they are in their early teens. When they are learning the game they play in a much more confined space, often indoors. It’s a game the Brazilians call futsal, which is short for futebol de salão (indoor soccer).

Learning to play the game in a confined space has several very important results. First, because the space is confined, the number of players is reduced from eleven to five. That means that each player gets the opportunity to handle the ball far more often. In other words, with increased frequency! That’s a surefire way to develop better skill. Second, because the space is confined the ball moves between players much faster and much more often. In other words, with increased intensity! A great way to develop the ability to control the ball and pass it under pressure. Third, because there are unlimited substitutions allowed, each player plays for a shorter duration of time which is more appropriate for their age and level of neurological development. All of this adds up to the development of a lot of soccer players of extraordinary talent.

Neymar Jr., one of the current group of Brazilian greats had this to say about futsal, “Futsal had a massive influence on me when I was growing up. It’s a very demanding game and it really helped to develop my technique, speed of thought, and ability to perform moves in tight spaces. I think futsal is a fundamental part of a footballer’s life.”

Does this mean that every child who plays futsal grows up to be a soccer superstar? Not at all. There is a difference between having talent and having superstar talent. And that is where things like passion, individual motivation, discipline, coaching, etc. come into play. But becoming a superstar in any endeavor, especially in childhood, isn’t the objective. At least it shouldn’t be the objective. It’s certainly not our objective. Our objective is to give children the opportunity to develop to their full potential whatever that might be. We do that by ensuring that their brains are well developed and functioning well. We’re happy to let them decide where that leads them!

One last thing. Now that you’ve focused your attention on this science stuff for a while, give yourself a break and enjoy watching this video of Neymar Jr.. It covers his career from the time he was a kid playing futsal to his present day professional career playing for the best soccer clubs of Europe and as the captain of the Brazilian national team. It’s a beautiful illustration of how that talent developed in childhood combined with all of those intangible ingredients (passion, individual motivation, discipline, coaching) can produce poetry in motion on the soccer field.

Cheers to Asking Questions – How to Develop Your Toddler’s Understanding

By Conceição Solis / May 2, 2018 / 2 Comments

In our previous blog, How to Best Develop Your Baby’s Understanding we discussed the fact that children who are spoken to a lot and from birth develop understanding earlier and generally have a more sophisticated and mature understanding of language. As a result, they tend to have better cognitive function. A key element to remember is to talk with your child not just to your child. In our last post, we noted a recent study at MIT in which they provide proof of the importance of conversation with adults in the development of understanding and language. While your child is a baby, the “conversation” is clearly more one-sided and it may feel like you are simply talking to them. Even for babies, however, be sure to give them time to coo and babble at you. In these very early stages you are beginning to teach them about the art of conversation. As your baby grows into a toddler that back and forth becomes more crucial.

Babies who are spoken to from birth and who listen to language that is varied and sophisticated will speak earlier, use a richer vocabulary and will more quickly develop proper sentence construction. Remember, garbage in – garbage out. The reverse is also true. Correct and sophisticated information into the child’s brain will result in correct and sophisticated language coming out of the child’s mouth!

In addition to having a bigger vocabulary and more sophisticated use of language, these children will have a greater ability to foster their curiosity about the world that surrounds them and they will ask more questions.

Enter the “Why?” stage. Do you remember that phase? Is your child going through this phase now? If your child is not there yet, just wait!

  • “Why is the sky blue?”
  • “What makes an airplanes fly?”
  • “Why can’t people fly?”
  • “How come this flower is yellow?”
  • “Why is spinach good for me?”
  • “Why do we have to go shopping now?”
  • “Why is Grandma mommy’s mom and Nana is Dad’s mom?”
  • “Why is it night time?”
  • “Why is it day time?”
  • “What makes the sun come up?”
  • “What makes the sun go down?”
  • “Why do slugs leave a slimy trail?”
  • “Why do some birds eat worms?”
  • “How long does it take to get there?”
  • “How many stars are in the sky?

Here is one my grandson asked me during one of my trips to Chicago when he was 3 years old: “Vovó (Grandmother in Portuguese), why do clouds float?”

Me: “Hmm, I don’t exactly know why but let’s look it up!”

Him: “Maybe they have helium, like balloons?”. Pretty clever, actually! Here you also see the leap from simply asking questions to formulating his own hypothesis.

Sometimes you feel like the questions will never end! I strongly recommend that you not laugh and dismiss them or their questions. What a great opportunity your child is giving you. If you do not know the answer, look it up, and let them know in a way that they can understand. Yes, the constant “Why?”, “What?” and “How?” questions can wear on a parent. Believe us, we feel you! But it really is a wonderful thing for a child to be that curious. So find solace in the fact that you have an eager learner when you’re answering “why”, “what” and “how” for the millionth time.

Glenn Doman, a very important mentor of ours used to say, “The brain is the only container that the more you put in, the more it can hold!” This is so true. It means that the more you teach a child the more they want to learn, the more curious they become, and the more questions they ask! Another advantage to welcoming your child’s questions is that when a child asks lots of questions she is providing you with a great opportunity to learn about her interests and what she wants to learn. And it’s fun! Kids really do say the darndest things!

Here are some pointers to encourage your toddler’s natural curiosity and to keep those questions coming:

As your child grows, get in the habit of including your child when you are conversing with others. This doesn’t mean that your child has to be a part of all of your conversations. However, you should not carry on extensive conversations as your child just sits there being ignored, even when they are babies. By developing the habit of frequently addressing your child verbally you will get used to naturally including them in a conversation when appropriate. The message the child receives is that you are interested in what he has to say and ready to respond to his questions and to help him learn. Your children will learn to appropriately join in on a conversation and feel comfortable asking questions. Your child will learn the art of conversation because the message you are sending is that we listen to each other, and what you have to say is valued and important. Children who are ignored or dismissed get the message that they are to be seen and not heard. And that is certainly not the message we want to send.

In addition, by answering a child’s questions you are providing information while also continuing to encourage her curiosity and her excitement for learning! Why do most adults stop asking so many why’s, how’s and what’s? Is it because we take many things for granted? Is it because we were made to feel silly for asking so many questions? Is it because we were dismissed or ignored and concluded that it wasn’t important for us to know the answer? Or is it because we began to equate learning with performing on a test and not for the sake of knowledge and fun? It is likely a combination of factors. Most would agree, however, that innovation and development comes from people who continue to ask “why, what or how can I make xyz different or better?”. Answering a child’s questions with the same enthusiasm with which they ask, brings fun into the discussion, and it conveys to them that “Yes, learning is fun!”

Be sure to also remember what I told you in our previous post. When talking to your child, whenever possible make sure you place yourself at your child’s level so that you are face to face and not talking down to them.

And when it comes to the neurological benefits of conversation, remember what we said in our post, The Brain Grows Through Use – “Brain plasticity exists because function determines structure. The single most important thing you need to know about the brain is that the brain grows through use. It does so in much the same way as a muscle. Your child’s brain grows, it literally goes through structural and chemical changes, every time it is used.” What simpler way to achieve this than through good conversation that provides your child with new information?

So keep answering those questions and when you get to the point where you wonder if your toddler will ever stop talking and asking questions you will know you have done a good job! 😉   

Oh, and one more benefit is that when your child asks questions they give you the opportunity to learn something new. Embrace looking at the world through a child’s eyes and you will both have a lot of fun learning together!

Just one more thing!  In case you’re still wondering why clouds float – check out the answer from It’s Okay to Be Smart by PBS Digital Studios.