From Baselines to Enrichment: The Seven Golden Maximizers

Brain-based - early childhood

All enrichment effects start with contrast from a baseline from which we can create environmental contrast. But remember, the baseline is not always so obvious.

The consideration of the ultimate enrichment response is laughable if the brain’s own minimum baselines are not being met. While it’s true that there are many ranges of criteria for optimal child rearing, but nonetheless baselines do exist.

I’m convinced many people think they’re living an enriched life, when it’s got a long ways to go to maximize their potential. In the cases of extreme danger, trauma or high-risk poverty, it’s pretty obvious. These seven positive factors are the contrasting factors that are most likely to maximize the enrichment response.

A child will not be raised poorly if parents and teachers ignore some or even all of these principles for a day or make occasional mistakes. No one expects constant miracles, but young children do need constant help, and it’s useful to keep these principles in mind.

1. Physical Activity and Exploration

There’s nothing like it on earth. The first time a baby sees you blow bubbles, open a box of goodies, or peel a banana. The developing brain needs this active exploration to learn the new world of senses and to connect it to its own world. That’s what creates expectancy and coherence. This key principle is to foster safe and active exploration of the natural world. Notice that I did not say exploration of battery-operated toys, television, or the DVD. The real world of natural sensory stimulation is where the child’s brain needs to interact.

Curiosity is a good thing for children. How valuable is this to your child? Research found that children who are curious and seek out new adventures and experiences at age 3 have substantially higher IQs by the time they are preteens (Raine et al., 2002).  The most adventurous of the 3-year-olds in a study of 1,795 children scored 12 points higher on total IQ when they were tested years later. They also had far better academic and reading ability by age 11 than their less exploratory and less curious peers. UCLA researcher Adrian Raine used recordings of children in informal learning situations as they explored their environment, engaged socially with other children, and verbally interacted with adults.

Exploration developed the brain better than being sedentary.

2. Learning that’s novel, meaningful, and challenging

The funny thing is, you almost can’t stop a child from birth to five from learning. Their brain is designed to learn and does learn countless things. In the context of our first few years, there are two specialized types of learning that we’ll focus on.

The first is the learning of appropriate emotional responses. That process is known as attunement. The brain is born with the capacity to express six, maybe eight wired-in emotions. They include joy, fear, surprise, disgust, anger, and sadness (Ekman, 2003). But we have to learn 100’s of socially appropriate, environmentally learned responses such as gratitude, worry, appreciation, anticipation, suspicion and flirting and others.  Attunement helps children activate emotional states appropriately and in context.

The second type of learning is the more formalized types of cognitive learning that parents and caregivers frequently provide for youngsters. This learning helps us learn cause and effect, addition, the alphabet and countless other early chunks in life.

The word attunement means becoming “in tune” with another, that is, establishing an emotional and physical reciprocity between two or more persons. The child smiles and you smile back—that’s attunement.

For the child, your response launches a synchronous dance between the visual, auditory, and tactile systems and the developing emotional centers in the brain. Early healthy emotional attachment—especially during the first twenty-four months—helps develop the social and emotional skills fundamental for life (Siegel, 1999). This is when the primary caregiver illustrates the proper and critical emotional responses, and the child learns how to express emotions in a social world.

While all humans are born with the capacity to express basic emotions such as surprise, anger, and sadness, we are not born with the hundreds of more sophisticated emotional responses that make up our culture; they have to learned in context, over and over. There is accumulating research that suggests that children with delayed cognitive development are not getting the frequency of exposure they need from adult-child transactional experiences (Ramey & Ramey, 2000).

Some years ago, the phrase “quality time” became quite popular in the press and especially among parent advocate groups, but it turns out that there is absolutely no substitute for the quantity of quality time. The lower end of the baseline here is that parents or loving caregivers should have sufficient positive contact with growing children for some but not necessarily all of the first five years. But that’s far from the upper end. It is this quantity that not only builds the emotional systems need for life, but other basics like the skill of paying attention.

The games and toy manufacturers would have you believe that children under age five should be getting on board the electronic bandwagon or they’ll fall behind early. Nothing could be further from the truth. Kids will get more exposure in their lifetime than you and I ever dreamed of.  If a toy needs batteries, children under age five don’t need it.

Will a battery-operated toy for young children do harm? No, it won’t. But a steady diet of electronic games and computer-like products are the wrong way to feed the developing brain. No child can be raised by a TV set, video game machine, DVDs, or even the best quality computer games. For a good treatise on this subject read Jane Healy’s Failure to Connect (1999). Videos and DVDs that are made for babies, no matter how cute, funny, coherent and well meaning, are babysitters, not an enrichment program. Don’t fall for the hype that says that such and such DVDs will are critical for developing early learning in your kids.

Be smart about exploration; you can offer active exploration, interaction with other children or well-designed toys, books or even just a big empty box, cartoons lose by a landslide. Do not use electronic media on children under five as a way for them to grow their brain; it’s not going to happen.

Your child needs things that they can do, not watch the toy do it instead. The ideal games are ones, which look simple (but are in fact, complex) to a child, with many colors and big pieces or parts to it. It should engage a child immediately not by barking out irrelevant sounds or lights, but it should beg the child to try it out, explore it, test it and modify it. Children who learn to build, arrange, create and repair their own toys develop a sense of competency that will never, ever come with punching buttons with sound effects on a dumbed down laptop. Here’s an interesting concept, the bigger the toy that kids get for Christmas or their birthday, the more they like the plain brown box it came in. A big box (with imagination) can be a fire station, space ship, queen’s palace or haunted house. Now that’s a real builder of the brain!

3. Managed Stress (low to moderate)

This contrasting enrichment factor reminds us that body and brain responds negatively to distress. Since stress is a biological response that results from the perception of lack of control, children are highly vulnerable to stress. They simply can’t manage the variables as their brain soaks up the world. They don’t have the capacity to reframe life, debrief it and redirect attention very well. During the first five years, the human brain is especially adept at—and therefore vulnerable to—a process called “downloading the culture.”  This is an amazing human phenomenon that allows youngsters to get “up to speed” in their new world.

The single worst downloads from culture are those of trauma associated with violence, distress, bad language, disrespect, and poor role models. The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) urges parents to avoid any and all television for children under 2 years old. They also say children over two be limited to one to two hours of educational screen media per day.

Exposure to television is dangerous in itself because of the kind of passive, no-feedback absorption it involves. The more time a child spends watching TV, the less time that child spends interacting with the world. And that’s positive, constructive television. The content that fills most of the airwaves—full of violence and the sort of vocabulary no child needs—takes an actively negative toll on children (Strasburger & Donnerstein, 2000). Overall, the levels of violence in prime-time programming have averaged about five acts per hour—while children’s Saturday morning programs have averaged about twenty to twenty-five violent acts per hour (Murray, 1994).

Strategy for Enrichment response: Mediate as many stressors for your children as you can. Remember that they cannot cope well with distress. Come as close to zero for electronic entertainment in the first five years as you can. Too much of an unmanaged electronic download is terrible for a growing brain. It’s not only stressful, but a huge wasted opportunity for alternatives that could do more benefit. Instead find other children for your child to play with and make your house childproof so the kids can play with less supervision. These include social time with friends, more hands-on games or an adult reading to the child.

4. Nourishment

This factor continues to linger as a potential brain maximize. Why? Most parents believe that they already provide sufficient nutrients for their young children, but the data shows otherwise. Many ignore nutrition, thinking that getting the government’s minimum daily requirements are all that’s needed. Growing children need much more. This is a huge opportunity for maximizing the health and growth in any child. Many children under five years old often drink soft drinks (a no-no), eat deep-fried foods (a no-no), and get more refined carbohydrates than fruits, protein, or vegetables (that’s a no-no, too). Among infants aged 24 months or less, 11 percent (one in nine) have French fries daily, and 24 percent (almost one in four) have hot dogs daily (Fox et al., 2004). French fries and hot dogs are a carnival experience, not nutritious food for the delicate growing brain. Hypoglycemia has a profoundly negative effect on the hippocampus (that’s a small crescent structure in our temporal lobes that organizes and codes explicit memory). Instead of a diet of sugar, children need nutrition-rich complex carbohydrates. Those are the unprocessed foods that take longer to break down and digest, but offer far more nutrition. They include potatoes, brown rice, pasta, yams and eggplant.

Young brains need many nutrients for learning. Here are some suggestions:

  • No soft drinks until age 5, even then, make them an occasional treat (children don’t need the sugar or the habit).
  • Potato chips, donuts, pop-tarts and cookies are neither staples nor a balanced meal.
  • Whole fruits—bananas, sliced apples, grapes, and watermelon—should be a steady part of the diet.
  • Water is the best liquid, otherwise use real (not artificial) fruit drinks. (Artificial drinks have too much high fructose corn syrup, which has been linked to diabetes.)
  • Commercial hot dogs, hamburgers, and pizza are not staples; make fast food an exception offered no more than once a week. If you buy frozen pizzas, add fresh ingredients to make it healthier (spinach, broccoli or bell peppers).
  • Stick with whole foods—real foods—and reduce the ready-made ones.
  • Give choices—but make them minor, insignificant choices. The adult should be the real guardian of the child’s nutrition, offering only positive choices.

Strategy for Enrichment response: Include a wide range of foods for your child. Sneak some supplements or extra nutrients into the meals. Make protein smoothies with flaxseed oil in them. Proteins and fruits are needed as well as the more complex carbohydrates (pasta, real potatoes, and brown rice).

5. Coherent Complexity

If you’ve ever visited to another country or simply listed to another speak a language that you do not know, it’s easy to feel outmatched. When you don’t know the language, you’re seriously “out of the loop.” New languages, when you have no background are tough. But on kids, it’s even tougher. The difficulty of learning a new language is the greatest complexity that most children face. While some parts of a child’s life may be suboptimal, that doesn’t make them complex. In a child’s life, the most complex part of his or her environment is language.  Between birth and six months and again between six months and twenty-four months children cross several thresholds in language learning.

The development of language is primarily stimulated by these activities:

  • Listening to millions of words. The more words a young child hears the better. The highly fluctuating tonality of “Parentese” (the “goochy-goochy-goo” burble that people find themselves using without thinking about it, sometimes to their embarrassment) is actually helpful from birth to twelve months.
  • Listening to whole sentences. The children who had the most impoverished vocabularies and who were least likely to read were those whose parents shouted out commands, directives, and complaints. Children who hear phrases all day such as “Stop it! Now sit down,” or “Shut up!” will have weaker vocabulary development than those whose parents take time to talk with them.
  • Seeing words as well as hearing them. Point out letters. Point out words when you read aloud. Point out signs on streets. In short, make the world of letters, sounds, and words very real in an everyday context. Use fingers to show letters. Sign language is often valuable for infants to learn before they have a spoken vocabulary. It can reduce their stress of being unable to communicate.
  •  Speaking. The more the better. Encourage a child to talk through things. Ask simple questions such as where, when, how, why, and who. Most important, read interesting books to your child, and talk about them.
  • Specific identifications. It’s not enough to say to your child, “This is a hat. See this . . . this is a hat.” Make distinctions so your child knows what is similar and what is different. Instead say, “This is a hat right here. And here, we have a scarf.”

From birth to age five, the children starting school with the weakest vocabulary had parents who spoke, on average, about 500–1500 words per hour. That adds up to a million words—which sounds like a lot! On a per day basis, it’s about 5,500 words or about 1,000 words for each of the five waking hours of daily contact (subtract time for sleeping, playing, and other activities).

But contrast that with those who began school with an excellent vocabulary. They had parents who spoke an average of 1500–2500 words per hour. In five years, that’s two to three million words or more than a million more words! This gives you an idea of how much language children have to hear to be ready for school. More speaking, more quality speaking to children is better for educational outcomes (Hart & Risley, 1992).

Strategy for Enrichment response: When you’re with very young children, talk as often as possible. Speak clearly and often. Use full and complete sentences. Ask questions and wait patiently for answers. Avoid “barking” out one-or two word commands. Talk through every task you can. Talk through getting dressed, using the toilet, and changing diapers. Talk through exploring objects and playing games. One of the easiest ways to ensure a child gets a daily dose of vocabulary is by reading aloud. Read every day for at least 10–15 minutes. Talk with enthusiasm and remember when it comes to exposure of vocabulary, there are no studies that show one can do too much. You can play the “I Spy” game. “I spy a . . . dog!” “I spy a . . . tree.” Or, “I spy a… shoe!”  It’s great for kids to learn new words while being engaged with some suspense.

6. Free Time

Most parents have a tendency to want to keep their children busy, and for good reason. At least they know where each child is and what’s happening. But it is possible to keep a child too busy. Children need time to go at their own pace, taking pauses, breaks, and doing nothing at times. As long as the area is safe, it’s perfectly acceptable for your child to be doing absolutely for as much as an hour a day of waking time. Why?  Read what a leading expert, Peter Huttenlocher, a professor of pediatrics and neurology at the University of Chicago, says:

“The brain of the young child may need some ‘time out’ to consolidate the information. Reservation of cortical space for the processing of later acquired skills may also impart a functional advantage . . .. A proper balance of early exposure to an academic enrichment environment and time off  (italics added) may be important for optimal cortical development.” (Huttenlocher, 2002)

Peter Huttenlocher has made detailed studies of brain development that are classics in modern neuroscience. As much as anyone in the world he understands the complex process of a growing brain, and he maintains that it may be costly to try to cram too much too fast into a young brain. Enrich, and then allow for settling time. If the brain gets too many learning experiences too early, it may use areas that would have been better reserved for later development. The world is full of “late bloomers”—people who were average or below early in school or even by graduation, then became substantial contributors later in life. To cite the most vivid example, Einstein was an average student up through middle school. He did not get life crammed into his daily routines and was unable to make it into the equivalent of the advanced placement classes in his high school. In fact, he struggled with basic math problems. No early blooming here; Einstein’s first job was as a patent office clerk.

The studies on this are unclear. Many of these “Better Baby” graduates do better the first year or two in school. But others not in the super-enriched program catch up quickly (Hirsch-Pasek et al., 2003). This raises other questions: Is there any possibility that other opportunities are being lost? Are other kids better at things not measured? What would happen if the Better Baby brigade were tested ten years later? Maybe it’s not how much you offer children, it’s whether what you offer is appropriate for that child, on that day. One of the lessons here is that enrichment is not about cramming as much as possible per minute of life. It’s the whole package. It means avoiding harm, keeping stress down, giving some free quiet time daily, and managing the download so it comes in amounts the child can use constructively.

Strategy for Enrichment response: Avoid cramming high-speed activities into every waking hour of your child. It’s acceptable to let them simple sit, rest, observe, explore and take naps. Find a balance between guided activity and quiet time. Remember to allow for simply relaxation or passive observation. Even more than adults, children need a chance to consolidate their gains and find uses for them that are personally rewarding.

7. Social and Community Support

Much of the studies on enrichment suggest that a positive social environment can do wonders to enhance health and social out comes. One of the roles that positive social contact serves is to be a go-between. Other people can buffer negative experiences and amplify positive experiences. Usually one or more of the older group serves as a mediator. A mediator is a go-between, one who serves as a way to translate, influence, and ensure the success of a relationship.

Children need mediators—people who will mentor, encourage, rehearse, guide, limit, and celebrate the experience of life, helping them perceive and understand how people and things work. This is one of the hardest but most important principles for enriching the brain. The first five years are a time when the child has little ability to regulate its own brain. Life happens to them. What children need, especially from ages two until five, is a guide, mentor, and guardian to help them navigate their way through life. This is particularly challenging for today’s working parents, but it is essential for enrichment.

Use this time in your life to protect your child from bullying, harassment, teasing or physical punishment. Children this age cannot understand others’ intentions and they sure don’t know how to understand the history behind another’s misdeeds. Infants especially do not need to be punished. You may say, “No,” and walk away, but they don’t need violence. When your child makes a mistake, keep remembering their age. Their brain is not mature and there’s no way on earth that they’ll understand etiquette, manners, safety or cause and effect for social conduct or just plain mischief. Children at not resilient; they are highly vulnerable to stress, trauma, abuse and distress.

Finally, children are learning countless things every day. Earlier we talked about the constant downloading of the environment. Children download the stress, the vocabulary and the emotions. Children are also downloading images, phrases and actions. They are downloading how you treat them, how you treat others and how you respond to stress. Children are downloading the love you show them, the way you treat other children and the way you treat your spouse.

Amplify the Positives Through Celebrations

Celebration is key, not just to children, but also to those who live and work with them. When your child finishes a task, celebrate with a smile, clapping and whoops of joy. Celebrate for not just the first word, or the first step, but for every little thing. Your child needs to know what you find important. But you, too, need to stop and smell the roses. Your child is making a breakthrough! You and your child did it!

Make a point for a mini-celebration when your child:

  • Completes a simple task
  • Mimics your smile, movement, or laugh
  • Stands up, walks, or holds an object carefully
  • Completes a request
  • Tries out a new food
  • Finds a toy, puts toys away
  • And countless other simple tasks

The celebration becomes an encouraging milestone. The child learns what you value and what to anticipate will be celebrated in the future—and the joy of learning itself. But what about you? You get to see the forest through the trees. You get to stop, pause and smell the roses. You get to freeze time and say, “Progress is happening, goodness is here, we are getting there.” It’s an acknowledgment of your parenting as well as a celebration for the child. Remember to celebrate even the little things, and remember: it’s just as important for you to celebrate as it is for others.

Strategy for Enrichment response: Mediate the world for your child by making it safe, more interactive and filled with laughter. Be the parent that you’d want your child to grow up to be someday. Every day, practice being loving, encouraging, accepting and patient. Celebrate the simple milestones. With children under five, there are often new milestones reached every week.

What Effective Early Childhood Programs Do:

If this enrichment response was the real deal, there should be evidence for it; and there is strong evidence. The place to do the best studies is in early childhood because many kids who are starting first grade are not ready for school (Carnegie, 1995). While the more obvious complaint might be that kids are cognitively behind, the fact is, many are behind socially and emotionally.

That’s why the seven enrichment response factors mentioned above are wide in their reach—they’re not all academic. The first thing to understand about effective programs is that it’s not easy. It’s simple—just follow the seven guidelines mentioned above. But executing them is not a piece of cake. One reason is that for any early childhood program to be effective, they must either keep up with the anticipated or typical developmental trajectory of healthy kids, or make up for lost ground if the kids have been exposed to adverse circumstances.

Prevention always sounds good to some in hindsight. When the problems pile up, it’s worth asking, “Could any of them have been prevented?”  Many parents make the time to deal with adolescent problems of oppositional personalities, attention deficits, depression, anxiety disorders, drug abuse, poor choices in activities and friends, and other growing-up issues. But the evidence suggests we might have far fewer of those problems if we invest better in the first five years. The brain is developing far more, faster and more critically in these years than any other time. Why not do the prevention early on when the child is far more cooperative?

Some argue against the early investment in childcare, saying, “Why not wait and only deal with the ones that become a problem?” But, can later problems get fixed? For the most part, yes. But the amount of time, headache, and resources it takes to fix a teenager’s problem usually far outweighs the prevention investment.

Part of the benefit of early enrichment is that by doing things smarter and earlier and better in a child’s life, you’ll be able to enjoy the benefits for a lifetime.


A pioneer in the early childhood enrichment field, Dr. Craig Ramey says, “What is needed from the research community is a shift in the central question being asked in contemporary early childhood education research. We need to realize that the old question of whether the development of high-risk children can be positively changed has been answered with a resounding “yes.” We must now move on to more refined questions concerning the relative influence of different types of programs including practical questions concerning age of onset, intensity and duration of treatment as well as the effects of various specific educational curricula.” (Ramey and Ramey, 2002 pg. 3).

He’s right; early smart programs that invest in human potential have the capacity to pay off for a lifetime. Are you on board?

Creative Commons License photo credit: Thomas Hawk

4 replies
  1. Linda Sasser
    Linda Sasser says:

    I appreciate this excellent article, which I would like to share with my Educational Psychology students, but I would also appreciate the references for the research cited. Please post or send it (or a link to it). Thank you!

  2. Susan
    Susan says:

    Thank you for yet another wonderful article which I will now share with the young teachers who are just about to begin their careers. I will also be sharing with those who have been teaching for some time.
    Your work continues to fill me with enthusiasm for teaching and how best to help children learn. Please keep writing these articles for me to share.

  3. Janet House
    Janet House says:

    Even at my age (retirement next year!) I am even more enthused and inspired. I sense such a love and respect for the children in your field of influence.
    I wish you were here in the UK!

    Sincerely, Janet

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