A guest post by Dr. Eugene Emmer, medical entrepreneur and author
Imagine Learning now publishes monthly guest posts in order to stimulate conversations about K12 education across the country. Opinions expressed herein are those of the individual author and may not necessarily reflect the official opinion of Imagine Learning.
As a physiologist and parent, I have long been interested in the impact of early childhood education on the child's developing brain.
Over the years, an increasing number of scientists have devoted lab research to brain development and function. Their findings are not only fascinating, they also show how important proper stimulation is for the developing brain.
For example, years ago I read an intriguing study that demonstrated a marked increase in hippocampal neurons in adult mice living in an enriched environment.
Basically, the study showed that young rats raised in a stimulating environment had better-developed brains than rats raised in unstimulating environments.
During this study, scientists raised two groups of rats. One group lived in an enriched environment that included toys, tunnels, wheels, and so on; the other group was raised in an empty cage with only food.
Scientists showed that the rats raised in the enriched environment developed more hippocampal neurons than the rats raised in an empty cage. The stimulating environment had developed each rat's young brain much the same way that lifting weights develops muscle.
Mental Stimulation and Children's Brains
Many other studies show that mental stimulation similarly affects children. One such study showed the effects of preschool on inner-city children, indicating:
"Participation in the high quality preschool program offered by the Chicago Child Center program targeted toward children from economically disadvantaged families leads to long-term benefits observed in adulthood. These benefits include improved educational outcomes, a reduction in the probability of felony arrest, and a reduction in substance abuse." (University of Minnesota, 2010)
Much discussion has also surrounded the so-called "word gap," i.e., a phrase describing how children from poor families hear 30 million fewer words than children from rich families. The impact of this gap is huge. Even the White House has announced:
"Research shows that during the first years of life, a poor child hears roughly 30 million fewer total words than her more affluent peers. Critically, what she hears has direct consequences for what she learns. Children who experience this drought in heard words have vocabularies that are half the size of their peers by age three, putting them at a disadvantage before they even step foot in a classroom." (www.whitehouse.gov.blog)
A Parent's Educational Methodology
Because so much scientific evidence shows the major impact early childhood education has on brain growth and success later in life, I wanted to make sure that my son would benefit.
Why not? It seemed easy enough. All children love games, songs, and videos. Many parents take advantage of this childish preference by using television as a baby sitter, often just entertaining their children rather than educating them.
But why not use educational games, educational songs, and educational videos to both entertain and educate?
Math Games When my son was three years old, I bought him a game called Sum Swamp, a simple board game in which players roll three dice.
Two dice are numbered from one to six, while the third is labeled with addition and subtraction signs. Players roll the three dice and perform the operation shown.
First, I showed my son how to add and subtract the numbers on his fingers; then, he was ready to play. We played that game for months, even taking it with us when we traveled. He loved playing it and I loved the fact that I was literally watching his brain develop as he played.
Almost a year later when my son was about four years old, I decided to try teaching him multiplication.
I started by explaining that multiplication was simply a faster way of adding. Then, I taught him the easy multiplication facts.
For example, I told my son that zero times anything is always zero, one times anything is the same number as 'anything,' and--when it came to ten times a number, my son could append a zero to the end of the number. Finally, I taught him that the number 11 makes another number say its name twice.
Easy enough, but what about other numbers?
About this same time, I discovered a math-fluency game called Timez Attack. I had read some good information on the game via an internet forum and decided to give it a try.
At that time, I was able to download the game for free so my son could play with it. Then, I waited to see if he would enjoy the game, and after I saw what a great time he was having, I decided to upgrade to a paid account.
The draw of Timez Attack comes from the fact that it's a fun, interactive game with excellent graphics and an ever-changing environment. Each child goes through a sort of maze, conquering alien creatures by solving math problems.
Once players master a set of numbers, they go through a checkpoint and enter a new world. Each world introduces different creatures and new math challenges, which keeps the game from becoming old and stale.
I only allowed my son to play for about 30 minutes per day because I was worried he would grow tired of the game. But he never did. He always looked forward to the game and clearing the next checkpoint. I bought the game at the end of December 2013 and my son completed it about a month and a half later in the middle of February 2014.
He played it a few more times after that and then we moved on to another math website, returning to Timez Attack later to review and refresh his multiplication skills.
I used a similar approach when teaching my son to read.
When my son was 3 years old, I started to look for ways to teach him the basics of reading. Unfortunately, all the methods I found were too difficult for a toddler, too boring, or were for in-school use only and therefore outside my reach as a parent.
Since I couldn't find a method that worked for us, I created my own. I started by creating a few games and songs to teach letter recognition and phonetic sounds. Then, I found a few games/videos on blending.
Eventually, I created some custom books that helped my son read easily and efficiently.
It was all much easier than I had imagined. In fact, I will soon publish my own book, "The Fun and Easy Way to Teach a Toddler to Read." The book will be available on my website, which is geared toward helping teach toddlers to read.
Modern technology has made available many games, songs, and videos for a wider audience than ever--revolutionizing early education opportunities in the process.
Instead of learning via old-fashioned or boring memorization drills (think flashcards), children can now access fun methods such as digital games and videos.
These methods can work for any child, just as they did for my son. Engaging digital programs allowed him to learn easily, all while stimulating the development of his young mind.
About the Author
Dr. Eugene Emmer is an American expat living in Europe with his wife and son. After a career in the medical industry, he felt the bite of the entrepreneurial bug and started his own company designing and distributing medical equipment.
Dr. Emmer is also interested in educational trends and is currently working on his first book, which is due to be published in Fall 2016. Visit his Facebook page to learn more.