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Brain Development in Children

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I have brilliant kids. At birth, my sons already had trillions of brain cells just waiting to be connected and stimulated. “Their potential to learn so much was all right there from the start,” says Marcy Guddemi, Ph.D., executive director of the Gesell Institute of Child Development research, education, and advocacy center in New Haven, CT. (The same holds true for all kids—but still!) While I want to do everything in my power to ensure my little guys' minds are top-notch, Guddemi reminds me that much of the recent drive to create future Nobel Prize winners (Read at 3! Learn Cantonese by kindergarten!) has made no difference: Children today reach cognitive milestones at the very same rate they did 80-plus years ago, says Guddemi, noting a 2010 Gesell Institute study. “There's a clear path that all children's brains take, but each child has his or her own rate. All of their new knowledge needs to be attached to old knowledge. You can't skip ahead,” she notes. Curious about your child's blossoming brain? Me too. Here, the highlights of kids' wild ride—and why they do the crazy, annoying, head-scratching, adorable things they do.

6 to 12 Months: The Scientist

Milestone: Object Permanence/Cause and Effect

What You're Seeing: “My almost eight-month-old is into tossing her high-chair toys (and food) over the edge, then peering down to see where they went. She's so pleased (much more than me!) to see it didn't all disappear.” —Alison Lenihan, Brooklyn, NY

Why? “Not to annoy you!” assures Sarah Nyp, M.D., a developmental-behavioral pediatrician at Children's Mercy Hospitals and Clinics in Kansas City, MO. “This ‘game’ is really an experiment in ‘object permanence.’ Before now, your baby thought toys, people, everything, simply ceased to exist after they were out of sight.” (You can thank your baby's maturing frontal lobe, the part of the brain that controls reasoning, for this turning point.) Once she wraps her head around this non-disappearing act, she'll likely keep tossing things, though. “They're tinkering with the idea of cause and effect. Like any good scientist, they conduct lots and lots of repeats to see if the results change,” says Dr. Nyp. You can almost hear them thinking it through: “Hmm. My cereal didn't disappear when I threw it. Will it fly? Will Mom bring me more again? Let's see.”

Help Him Along: The object-permanence and cause-and-effect milestones are connected to sensory-motor ones, like sucking and grasping. To encourage them all, set up a “yes environment” in your home. “It's the opposite of childproofing,” says Guddemi. “Make sure every room has things that your child can safely touch and experiment with. Exploration with his senses helps your baby's brain cells to form their connections.” And repetition strengthens them, so you don't want to be yelling “No!” every time he goes near something. A few ideas: Move all the Tupper-ware to a bottom cabinet in the kitchen; keep a bucket of blocks in the dining room.

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