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Activities to Boost Brain Development in Children

By Peter M. Vishton, Ph.D. ; Updated June 13, 2017

The human brain changes tremendously over the course of childhood, creating new neurons in some regions of the brain and trillions of new connections between neurons. This developmental process extends throughout childhood. According to the National Institute of Mental Health, the frontal lobes of the brain--crucial for planning and impulse control--continue to develop until 20 years old.

Maximize Good Nutrition

The brain is made up of cells, just like the rest of the body. Neurons are very specialized cells that enable us to think and behave, but just like other cells, they need nutrients and fuel to function. Several studies--for instance, those of Dr. Ray Yip of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation--have shown that good nutrition is crucial to brain development. Good nutrition is important before the child is born (as the brain is developing in the womb) and after.

Promote Physical Fitness for Your Child

In addition to good nutrients, the brain needs oxygen to function. The better a child’s circulatory system functions, the better his brain can perform. A recent study by T.M. Hung demonstrated that the brains of 5-year-old children who participate in regular physical activity produce faster electrical responses than those of sedentary children.

Avoid Trauma and Chronic Stress

According to a study conducted at the Western Psychiatric Institute in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, early exposure to neglect or abuse results in persistently elevated levels of stress hormones such as cortisol. The study found that, in addition to increasing the likelihood of depression, anxiety and eating disorders in later life, these children have significantly smaller brain volumes. The study clearly indicates that early experiences have long-term impacts on brain development.

Engage Your Child In Mentally Stimulating Activities

A child’s intelligence is, to some extent, influenced by genetic factors that can't be changed. Yet there is good evidence that using the brain stimulates the growth of new cells as well as new connections between existing cells. Craig Ramey conducted an intervention study with children whose mothers had low income and education levels. Children who were exposed to enrichment activities and increased parental involvement scored higher on IQ tests at 3 years old as compared to a control group of children who did not participate in the intervention.

Talk to Your Child

According to University of Chicago professor Janellen Huttenlocher, children with mothers who speak to them regularly know approximately 300 more words by the time they are 2 years old than children whose mothers don't talk with them regularly. Being exposed to language via the television or radio seems to have little effect. The interpersonal act of talking to the infant seems to be crucial to enhancing language development. Engaging in language learning seems to enhance a child’s brain development even when she's very young.

Promote Good Sleeping Habits

Children need more sleep than do adults. According to, newborns need about16 hours per day, toddlers 13 hours per day, school-age children 11 hours per day, and teens about nine hours per day. Recent studies by Marcos Frank, Ph.D., have demonstrated that certain genes are specifically activated during sleep. These genes promote the formation of brain connections in cats. They presumably play a similar role in humans. These results demonstrate that our sleeping hours are not a period of dormant inactivity; they're an important time for certain types of brain development.

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