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How Children's Brains Develop

Odds Bodkin is a master storyteller. He's also got some interesting ideas about our kids' brains. Read on to find out how to creativeley help your kids stay smart.

You thought you were on the way back to school, but instead, you find yourself on a desert island. Palm trees rise all around you, into the blue sky. Nearby, a man on a ladder is ladling what looks to you like concrete onto the bumpy bark of a palm trunk. Dream or no dream, this strikes you as odd. Then you begin to notice other trees, in various stages of concrete coverage, here and there. Some of the concrete sheaths have hardened. Some look quite old. Others have that fresh, wet look. A rumble. A low, thunderous rumble. You look toward the sea just in time to watch a tidal wave explode up the beach and into the trees. All around you, trunks are ripped away. The wave recedes. Only the palms protected by concrete sheaths remain standing.

If neurons in a child's brain are those palm trees, then those few standing palms, the ones that weren't washed away by the tidal wave, are learning. Learning, at least physiologically, takes place in part when systems of neural nets become protected by an oily molecular sheath called myelin. Our palm tree concrete, to follow the metaphor.

Neural nets

Learning theorists have recently discovered that as children learn, particularly when they master some activity, they activate new "neural nets", running impulses through them over and over. The more each neural net is used, the more myelin covers the cell bodies being used, facilitating easy passage of nerve impulses.

I, for instance, am a guitarist. I play by ear. The pathways from the sounds I expect to the motor memories and commands for my fingers are heavily myelinated. Easy, practiced motions. Protected for life, I hope.

Brain tidal wave

Protected from what, you might reasonably ask. Surely no tidal wave comes washing through the brain, knocking apart neuron networks, does it?

Actually, in a startling way, one does. It does so at ages 1, 4, 7, 11 and 15. These brain "growth spurts" are periods when our brains are lush with neuron connectors, growing thickly, as if our metaphorical island were the thickest of jungles. At these ages, our learning potential is immense. The more varied experiences we have, the more protective concrete pours over our neural jungle.

Lost connections

It is after these periods that the brain does something astounding. It releases a chemical that literally dissolves all the unused connections.

The tidal wave comes. And if we haven't made use of those connections by then, they really do wash away, pieces of potential intelligence forever lost to the relentless efficiency of the brain.

So as your child clambers onto the schoolbus this month and heads off, remember how precious each school year is for that invisible island, growing lush, hopeful palm trees inside your child's mind.

Check out Odds Bodkin's homepage!

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