Gabrielle Principe, Ph.D., Associate Professor of Psychology, explores the consequences of children’s modern lifestyles—their homes, schools, toys, and pastimes—on brain development in her new book, Your Brain on Childhood: The Unexpected Side Effects of Classrooms, Ballparks, Family Rooms and the Minivan. In this book, she relies on scientific evidence to make that case that children’s overscheduled, technology centered, and standardized testing lives are at odds with their brains’ evolutionary expectations.
A torrent of electronic entertainment, from video games, electronic toys, and Baby Einstein DVD’s are contributing to the distraction of healthy and unstructured playtime for children. They endure long rides in to T-ball, soccer, and karate practice. Some are practicing long hours with flash cards and rote learning with only limited recess and outdoor playtime. Consequently modern childhood seems to be becoming more controlled than ever. But it’s disrupting what should be a more natural and relaxed approach to learning through play and problem solving.
Principe advocates kids to get in touch with nature, wipe the calendar clean, and turn off technology. Children learn best when they are allowed to explore and figure things out on their own and not through a digital universe.
The Foundation for Child Development’s 2010 Child Health and Well-Being Index says that children’s overall health has sunk to its lowest point in the 35-year history of the index. Research show kids today more than ever are suffering from excessive levels of depression and anxiety. And, the latest National Assessment of Educational Progress shows that only 38 percent of high school seniors are proficient in reading and only 26 percent in math.
Into this mayhem steps expert Principe, who says that despite the dire statistics, there are solutions for a better way. “Parents and teachers are often better versed in the stories of child development that they hear in the media and they hear from friends,” says Principe. “Unfortunately, this story is not in line with what scientists know. Instead, it is often bent to sell products, a curriculum, a child’s enrichment class, or something like that.”
The book explores what studies define as the best environment for a child’s brain to develop. Principe sets up these findings by explaining how the brain has evolved over six million years, and she concludes that children’s brains “were not designed for life in the modern world.”
Principe doesn’t just encourage parents to turn the television off and send the children outside. She instead reinforces her views with compelling scientific evidence demonstrating why kids need less time in front of a television or computer screen.
Take the Turn off the TV argument: Principe cites studies that indicate that too much television too early can complicate a child’s ability to regulate their emotions. A three-year-old who watches three hours of television per day is 30 percent more likely to have attention problems than a child who doesn’t watch at all. And all those classes kids take at tutoring or learning centers to get a leg up academically? The author reminds us that these are businesses trying to make money and sell their products. The key to long-term development isn’t early introduction: Denmark, a country where formal teaching of reading and writing is not encouraged until age 7, has literacy rates that are higher than in the United States.
So what’s a modern parent to do? Throw the computer out for good? Forbid your child from ever playing a video game? Principe readily admits that as a mom of two elementary-age children, she allows video games, and her children occasionally watch too much TV. She even succumbs to signing them up for activities to ‘keep up with the Joneses.’
Your Brain on Childhood works so well because even though Principe is a scientist, she talks to you like a fellow parent. The tone of the book is conversational with funny stories about her own life sprinkled throughout The book is set up in small chapters with catchy headlines such as “Playtime Prison” and “Why Apes Don’t have Facebook Pages” that draw in readers. And because most parents will never find time to read long scientific journals, Principe’s concise, smart, summaries of these studies seems all the more important. She doesn’t promise your child will be a genius, a superstar athlete, or an Ivy Leaguer. But she does send a clear message that a childhood filled with unstructured exploration can enhance the likelihood of a well-adjusted, thoughtful adulthood. And, really, can a parent wish for anything more? — By Ellen (Cosgrove) Labrecque 1995