Toronto Star

Saturday, April 24, 1999

Can you make your child smarter?

BABY LOVE: Ryerson Polytechnic University psychologist Judith Bernhard, shown with a day-care baby, says there is no formula to follow.

Professor says computer science principles can be harnessed in the quest to boost brainpower in youngsters

By Nicholas Keung
Toronto Star Life Writer

If you want your child to be smart, you have to start early. Very early.

Babies are born with billions of brain cells and most of their wiring - the foundation of intellectual capabilities - is established during the first four to six years of life.

There is no doubt among educators that children must be nurtured in an enriched environment during their early years to maximize their potential.

Even Premier Mike Harris, in these pre-election weeks, seems to think so. On Tuesday, Harris and Dr. Fraser Mustard unveiled the long-awaited report on early childhood education co-authored by Mustard, one of the world's leading experts in the field.

The report, The Early Years Study: Reversing The Real Brain Drain, includes recommendations for major new spending on preschool children by governments, businesses and community groups. Brain development in early years lays the foundations for competence and coping skills throughout life, it says.

But exactly how far adults can boost a child's IQ remains an unsolved equation.

With the millennium swiftly approaching, scientists are talking about enhancing people's intellectual gifts by using our growing knowledge of artificial intelligence - the study of cognitive science and computer engineering to develop machines that can think, solve problems and make decisions like we can.

``The human mind does work like a computer and we can certainly generalize from what we learn from computers and teach (that) back to our kids and make them smarter,'' says Charles Ling, a computer science professor at the University of Western Ontario.

But child development experts argue that children learn within the context of an intimate relationship with their caregivers and they don't process information like step-by-step computer programming.

``There isn't a formula you can follow exactly to have a gifted child,'' notes psychologist Judith Bernhard of Ryerson Polytechnic University's School of Early Childhood Education.

``A child is not your little project that you're going to mold into a physician.''

Ling, author of the audio book How To Teach Your Child To Be Gifted (two tapes, $18, available at Chapters), says 40 per cent of a child's brain cells will die if they're not properly stimulated during the first few years.

Contrary to the common belief that watching television is bad for babies, he says the sounds and images from the TV can help stimulate the infants' audio and visual senses.

``You need to boost the brain's hardware in the first two years by ensuring there are enough neurons there, so you would have a Pentium 500 (rather) than a Pentium 100 to begin with,'' explains Ling, who earned his doctoral degree from the University of Pennsylvania.

He says repeated exposure to the same TV programs is instrumental during this developmental stage and parents should tape specific educational shows or movies for their kids' regular viewing, providing they're not exposed to the screen for a prolonged period.

``A baby's brain is very flexible and elastic. Without proper stimulation, their chances of becoming gifted will be limited,'' he says, adding that 50 per cent of adult IQ is reached by age 4 and 80 per cent by age 6.

Pediatric neurologist Dr. Daune MacGregor of Toronto's Hospital for Sick Children recognizes the importance of early stimulation, but refutes the different stages of IQ development suggested by Ling.

``It's not true. No. No. No . . . To say that a certain per cent of intelligence will be achieved by a certain time is not appropriate.''

Although lack of stimulation will lead to a significant intellectual deficit, MacGregor says a considerable number of brain cells are programmed to die in the first six months of life in what she describes as a ``pruning in our system. I don't think anybody in the world has data to say that if you don't stimulate someone, it causes the death of cells.''

So, is television viewing the way to stimulate brain cell development?

``Absolutely not,'' says Bernhard. ``There are much better ways to do it than sitting in front of a screen.''

She says the real stimulation during this critical time comes from a warm, caring relationship between infants and their caregivers - one in which they are responsive to clues and cues from the babies.

To allay the fear that children will fall behind in school, some parents are so caught up in the search for learning tools that they may overlook the most basic elements - love and care - in a child's learning experience, Bernhard notes.

``If (children have) adults who are crazy about them, respond to them and involve them in daily life, they will naturally be able to have stimulated audio-visual (senses) and all of the senses,'' she says.

This can be achieved by things as simple as hugging your child, talking, listening, reading, singing to your child, going for a walk, providing a space for safe exploration and spending quality time together.

`You don't need a lot of expensive toys to stimulate kids'

Bernhard says the best way for young children to learn is through people with real experiences and notes that the acquisition of language plays a very important part.

``You need to verbally communicate more to children, even when they're still in the womb,'' she says.

One trait that appears to be most promising in children's intellectual development is their command of language skills, MacGregor says.

``Reading to a child, giving them a sense of language and coupling that with physical closeness is probably the best thing you should do,'' she says.

Ling agrees, but again suggests that it should be done in a carefully monitored way.

He says parents should start engaging their kids in different verbal and thinking exercises between the ages of 2 and 6, and by doing so, the children can be guided to reason and solve problems in logic in a computer-like way.

For instance, rather than just reading out a story line by line, parents can lead their child to speculate about the future development of the story and investigate alternative consequences for the characters.

Ling says verbal games are most effective in simulating computers' thinking patterns.

One of the examples he uses is the game in which kids have to identify an object by asking a maximum of 20 questions. The questions must be phrased in a way that there can only be a yes or no response.

But clinical psychologist Dr. Jane Margles of York University says parents must first attract their children's interests and attention before engaging them in the learning process.

``Often, parents have a cookie-cutter approach and they do things in a particular way. It's also important to be in tune with what (things) interest, excite and motivate a child and use that as a springboard to stimulate that child.''

When her 5-year-old son Asher was a toddler, she randomly took out books to teach him to identify colours, but he showed no interest. Noticing his affection for trains, she started teaching him the colours through books and toys related to trains. He learned his colours immediately.

``The point is parents need to spend enough time with their child to be in touch with where the child is at,'' Margles says.

Ling says that like music, art and sports, early exposure to computers, the Internet and CD-ROMs can also put children a step ahead.

``Computers are smarter than humans and they are the best tutors at home,'' he explains. ``If kids can start working on them, they can soon form those thinking patterns like a computer.''

The best proof of the 35-year-old father's teaching methods? His children, Jenny and Victor.

Jenny, 9, skipped a grade and now attends a special class for gifted students.

At 2 1/2, Victor already recognizes the alphabet and counts up to 20 and down from 10 to 0.

Jenny says they have more than 50 CD-ROMs and she finds computers helpful and instructive in her English writing and algebra. ``The computer is a very good teacher and I've learned so much about logic and problem-solving.''

But Margles says kids learn best from experimental learning - anything they can actually touch, feel and experience first-hand. ``Kids just blossom when they're given the right kinds of stimulations and interventions,'' she explains.

Margles says she's seen university students who were written off by teachers in high school as lazy and slow but, given appropriate intervention, have proven themselves to be very capable. ``We must be very aware that our intelligence is malleable. In other words, it can constantly be shaped and changed by experiences that present themselves,'' she says.

Although parents are caregivers, MacGregor says they're also their kids' confidants and friends. ``Children should be enjoying the kind of things they do - things that don't have other agendas or punitive things assigned . . . (Don't) turn it into a `have-to' situation.''

``You don't need a lot of expensive toys to stimulate kids. What they need is love and care.''

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