Flipping the Switch

MARIAN WRIGHT EDELMAN | 5/15/2017, 12:28 a.m.
What if boosting a toddler’s brainpower was as easy as turning on a light switch? In fact, “Flip the Switch” ...

Children’s Defense Fund

What if boosting a toddler’s brainpower was as easy as turning on a light switch? In fact, “Flip the Switch” is one of the simple activities suggested by Vroom, an initiative that provides creative tools and materials to help families turn daily interactions with children into “brain building moments.” On one side of an electronic “flashcard,” Vroom describes this idea for children between 6 months and 2 years old: “Before leaving the house today, let your child be the one to turn off the lights. Help them flip all the switches and talk about how their actions turn the lights off for darkness and on for light.” On the reverse side Vroom explains the “brainy background” behind it: “This game teaches your child about cause and effect. When one of you hits the switch, your child will observe how the lights turn off and on. Have a conversation about what is happening so they learn some new words too.”

Vroom, an initiative of the Bezos Family Foundation, is one of a number of initiatives across the country focused on empowering parents to boost early childhood brain development. The first five years of life are the time of greatest brain development. Early nurturing interactions with caring adults form the basis of a healthy brain foundation. The strong case for increased federal investments for quality child care and other early childhood programs is bolstered by the great local work supporting families and communities in building healthy brains during children’s earliest years of life.

Vroom is partnering with leaders in a number of cities to build early learning communities where high quality early learning environments are available for all children. In Dallas, Vroom is working with the Commit! Partnership to improve access to quality early learning opportunities and create a continuum of care to support children and families, with an ultimate goal of ensuring 80 percent of Dallas children enter kindergarten ready to learn by 2025. They are using Vroom’s “Moments Framework” to educate parents about the importance of the early years for children’s development and suggest activities they can do. For example, what do zoos, museums, laundromats and nail salons have in common? For Vroom, these are all opportunities to spread awareness about how parents can create “brain building moments” every day while they are out and about with their children. Vroom has also launched a free app so parents can receive daily developmentally appropriate activities like “Flip the Switch” on their smartphones.

A baby is born with a brain 25 percent as large as an adult brain. Researchers at the Institute for Learning and Brain Science at the University of Washington tell us that by the time she reaches her fifth birthday, her brain is already over 90 percent of the size of her mature brain. That startling period of growth in size is mirrored by the growth in neural connections needed to learn how to process information and build skills.

The Center on the Developing Child at Harvard University reports that in the earliest years of a child’s life, more than 1 million of these connections are formed every second, with simpler connections paving the way for more complex ones. These early connections build the foundation for children’s future health, education and behavior. Every time adults respond appropriately to a young child’s calls for attention, they are helping build and strengthen neural connections and supporting the development of a strong brain foundation. The Center on the Developing Child refers to this quality parent-child communication as “serve and return” interactions and says the absence of them is a “serious threat” to a child’s development.