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Your Child's Amazing Brain

My friend's daughter taught herself to read in pre-K, and my son's 5-year-old buddy reads a book a night. They're well on their way to Dostoevsky, while my 6-year-old twins, Claire and Drew, are sitting on my lap struggling through a Puppy Mudge book and wondering when Mom will let them go watch TV.

"Your teacher said you have to read a book every day," I lie to Claire.

"I'll give you a treat for every book you read," I beg Drew. Nervous, I go online and order two phonics workbooks.

At the root of my embarrassingly competitive behavior is fear. Gone are the physically dramatic changes of my twins' early years, when they morphed from adorable infant blobs into children who walk, talk, and use the toilet. Now it's reading that looms as the next huge milestone, and it's created new anxiety for me: Why do some kids learn skills early while others don't? Will late learners always lag behind? Are my kids late learners? Is there something I should be doing to speed things along? Something I should have done?

I work my way through a stack of books about brains and kids. My big discovery: Children can't learn certain skills until their brain circuits are ready. Just as my kids couldn't walk before their brains and bodies were prepared, they won't be able to master the basics of reading, writing, and doing math until their brains have physically developed, no matter how hard they try.

Like most moms nowadays, bombarded as I am by ads for "stimulating" books, toys, and videos, I know that from birth until age 3, a child's brain is developing like crazy. But I've learned that what happens inside kids' heads from ages 3 to 8 is also incredibly complex and just as important. The key changes that take place and what you should know about your child's growing brain:

Contributing editor Jane Meredith Adams also writes regularly for Health and the Chicago Tribune.

It's plastic!

Your 3-year-old's brain is made up of billions of cells called neurons, which send and receive information. Her task over the next five years is to organize these neurons into a web of high-speed connections that control her emotions, thoughts, and movements. Such organization takes a lot of effort: From age 3 to 9, the brain uses more energy than at any other time in life.

Scientists describe children's brains as "plastic," meaning that they can and do change and that experience physically alters, or directs, the development of connections between different parts of the brain. (This happens in adults, too, but to nowhere near the same degree.) The connections that get used most often  -- such as those that let children walk and talk  -- expand and strengthen. Meanwhile, other physical changes are occurring that allow messages within the brain to be transmitted faster and more efficiently. The result: Your child's actions require less thought, and thought itself becomes more rapid.

"You can almost tell when these kinds of connections start to be made," says Jane Healy, Ph.D., author of Your Child's Growing Mind: Brain Development and Learning From Birth to Adolescence. "All of a sudden your child starts asking new questions and using new words."

At ages 2 to 3, there's an upsurge of activity in two of the brain's major language-processing regions, which is reflected in a preschooler's snowballing vocabulary  -- from about 900 words to 2,500 to 3,000 words before age 5.

At the same time, neural connections that aren't being used start to die off in a process known as pruning. As alarming as it may sound, pruning is natural and necessary. The human brain starts out with far more connections than any child (or adult) needs, including, for instance, those conferring the ability to make the sounds for every language on Earth. And it's not as though extra connections confer greater intelligence: Unless the unused connections are discarded, the cluttered brain can't function well, says Healy. I'm thinking about this on a Tuesday afternoon as I watch Claire concentrate hard on learning the intricate footwork of Persian dance. As she twirls to the beat, she's generating new networks and receptors that are different from the brain connections of her brother, who spends Tuesday afternoon concentrating on a game of handball.

I've spent six years in close proximity to my twins' brains, but I'm staggered when this fact sinks in: My kids are growing their own unique brains. Every dance class, every handball game, and every thought, feeling, and experience is interacting with their genetic makeup and creating one-of-a-kind brain networks.

How to support the changes
Ease off on the baby talk Your child can start to handle big-kid explanations.

Have conversations Take a few minutes to chat and listen. Take it slow so that your child has a chance to express herself.

Honor play Whether it's Persian dance or playing with blocks, all dynamic and imaginative play is a brain-booster.

Windows of learning?

According to researchers, there's usually no need to worry about your child's cognitive development because the brain is automatically programmed to learn. But like many parents, I've heard the phrase "windows of learning," and my first thought is that I've blown it: Claire and Drew will never get the hang of Spanish or piano because I failed to set them up with intensive lessons when they were 2.

To my relief, it turns out that there are very few absolute deadlines in the brain. One is that by age 2, a child needs to have developed vision. Another is that if a child doesn't speak by age 5, he'll have difficulty ever learning to speak. (As for learning a second language, scientists say that if speaking like a native is your goal then learning it earlier is better, but kids can pick up languages at any age.)

As for my fears about my kids' reading, it turns out that the parts of the brain that control visual, auditory, and memory information processing all have to be able to communicate effectively with each other before a child can learn to read. For a few kids this happens by age 5, but for most it all falls into place at age 6 or 7. If a child reaches age 8 without having achieved basic reading mastery, it's cause for concern, says Jay Giedd, M.D., chief of brain imaging at the child psychiatry branch of the National Institute of Mental Health and a dad of kids ages 12, 10, 7, and 5.

When a child's ready, he'll be pestering you to find out what all those signs and billboards say. "My son Jordan is ten now, but he wasn't interested in reading until he was six," says Dr. Giedd. "Then, seemingly overnight, he became very inquisitive about the meaning of words on signs and cereal boxes."

Okay, okay, I'll back off. At school, their teachers aren't worried, so maybe I shouldn't be either. We continue to read storybooks together every day, but I forget about my "you have to read a book on your own" campaign.

Ways to help without being pushy
Read for the fun of it Don't worry about how well your child can or can't read so long as he's having a good time.

Follow your child's lead Read the books he likes rather than the ones you think will "challenge" him.

Making things automatic

The first time your child runs  -- or plays the piano, or sips from a cup  -- his brain tells his body what to do, in sequence: lift right leg, lean forward, push with left, swing right leg forward, and so on. This is the novice phase, says Jean Blaydes Madigan, a kinesiologist and learning consultant in Murphy, Texas. As time goes on, his brain groups the movements together and automates them  -- all the discrete commands become one package that gets hardwired into the brain. "It becomes a muscle memory," says Madigan. "That's why once you learn how to ride a bike, you never forget."

And while your child is learning to run fast, he's also refining a part of the brain involved in complex thinking, says Madigan. Some scientists now believe that the brain region that automates the patterns and sequences involved in running (the cerebellum) also automates patterns and sequences involved in answering complicated questions.

Movement is critically linked to brain development. Crawling and running  -- activities in which the right arm and left leg move at the same time  -- improves communication between the two hemispheres of the brain.

Although new studies tell us that the hemispheres of the brain are in constant communication, in general, the right hemisphere is considered the intuitive side of the brain; if your child is dominant in a so-called right-brain learning style, he prefers drawing and manipulating objects, responds to instructions that are physically demonstrated to him, and problem solves by looking for patterns.

A child who has a dominant left-brain learning style responds to verbal instructions, prefers talking and writing, and problem-solves using logic and sequences.

While some kids heavily favor one side of the brain over the other, most use both sides. Strengthening the pathways between hemispheres helps a child learn to see a problem in many different ways.

To encourage activity
Give him room to run Make sure some kind of physical activity is part of every day.

Don't force sports Not every child wants to join the soccer team. Embrace any kind of physical activity, from climbing a tree to dancing, or even playing with the dog.

Emotions and learning

Another change happening between ages 3 and 8 is that development continues to move from the brain stem and midbrain, where instincts and impulses originate, to the regions of the brain that govern language and abstract thought. The result: Kids are able to manage their feelings better. And this is crucial to learning.

Until kids can deal with frustration, disappointment, and anxiety, they can't learn very effectively because the mental activity associated with these emotions cuts off access to the brain's learning centers.

Looking back on the start of Drew's first-grade year, this learning-block idea makes sense. He's a guy who loves to have a best friend, but this year for the first time his best friend wasn't at his school. I'm sure the stress of adjusting to a new classroom without a pal didn't make it any easier for him to tackle learning to read.

Of course, learning is not a race, despite the fact that some schools expect all 6-year-olds to be performing at the same level. In fact, kids learn to read, write, and do math at their own pace, generally between 3 and 8.

"It's not necessarily true that the earlier you learn something the better," says Dr. Giedd. "And being first may not mean they'll stay the first." He notes that Albert Einstein didn't excel at an early age but famously went on to monumental accomplishments.

The key is to follow your child's passion and make learning fun. The fun factor is not just a nice extra: enjoying learning and finding it exciting actually makes the brain learn more effectively, says Dr. Giedd.

So don't worry about having to create some super-stimulating lifestyle, says Patricia Wolfe, Ed.D., coauthor of Building the Reading Brain. "The kind of enriched environment we read about being good for kids' brains doesn't mean doing anything over and above what most typical, loving families do intuitively every single day."

What you can do
Don't shield your child from every disappointment It's fine to protect him from some wounds, but kids have to learn to accept the consequences of their actions and the fact that life can put up roadblocks.

Help her express her feelings Talking about emotions with your child can ensure both that she has the words she needs to say what's on her mind and that she knows you'll be there for her, now and in the future.

Think about yourself as a child What you would have found comforting, or helpful, when you were little will probably also help your child (while what helps you now, as a grown-up, may not be useful).

When I manage to let go of my worrying, I notice that my kids' brains have actually been developing quite nicely without my interference. Not long after Drew said he didn't want to go to the science museum, he was in the laundry room taking batteries out of three flashlights, flipping the positive and negative ends of them, and seeing what makes the bulb shine.

For my money, that's science. And since Drew tends to be a homebody, as I am, it's actually no surprise that his learning style would be low-key: If he's going to be conducting scientific experiments, he'd rather do it on his own volition, in the good old, familiar laundry room of our house than at a museum.

One last thought about my kids' efforts to learn to read. The minute those hastily ordered phonics workbooks arrived in the mail, Claire and Drew tore open the envelopes and passionately began to fill out the pages. It's become their new favorite activity. Perhaps a workbook is less intimidating than Puppy Mudge because the task has been broken down into pictures to circle and small words to write?

It beats me. Clearly, I'm a bystander in this process. Try as I might, I can't control their brains.

I'm looking forward to seeing what develops.