Playing with your child should start before birth!

August 28, 2016 in Uncategorized

On Saturday 27 August 2016 three speakers explored the importance of playing with children. We met at Bibliophilia in Woodstock.

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The three were (from left) Nadia Viljoen, a qualified motor-skills therapist, swimming instructor and the author of 1-2-3 Play to grow, games for motor-skills development, Jacqui Couper, an occupational therapist and the author of The precious years and Dr Elmarie Malek, the head of General Paediatric specialist services at Tygerberg Academic Hospital.

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Dr Malek spoke first. She explained how a baby’s brain develops during pregnancy and up to two years of age, which is the first 1 000 days.

Slide supplied by Dr Malek

Slide supplied by Dr Malek

By the 1000th day the brain has reached 80% of its adult weight.

From birth to age 18 months, connections in the brain are created at a rate of 1 thousand per second.

She showed us brains scans of healthy, happy babies who had been loved and played with, as well as those of babies who had suffered from neglect. Their brains looked different. The “architecture” of the happy brain is already geared for success, while a child who had not been loved and stimulated has an enormous amount of catching up to do.

How does that happen? On the one hand a stimulated brain develops more connections, on the other hand, stress during pregnancy causes high cortisol levels; which slows down the baby’s brain development. If a foetus or baby suffers from stress for a long time without the buffering of parental love, doctors talk about “toxic stress.”

The ideal situation is a baby who is wanted by the parents, who is loved and spoken to in the womb, with a mother who is happy, healthy and have enough good food to eat. Even at 27 weeks, the foetus can hear and will be able to recognise the parent’s voices, so at birth those voices will be familiar. Speaking to a baby will calm her or him.

Breastfeeding is the best food for a young one, if the mother is healthy and able to do so.

From birth onwards the brain is trying to figure out the world. The more we stimulate a baby, the better the brain will develop.

It starts with the mother, but any care-giver should be prepared to help the baby reach her or his potential. Often grannies or day care centres need to look after babies; that could work, as long as they to do justice to the child’s natural curiosity.

Nadia's husband is an involved dad

Nadia’s husband is an involved dad

Fathers and siblings play an important role in supporting a nurturing and safe environment for the child, if they are present.

Slide supplied by Dr Malek

Slide supplied by Dr Malek

So, the three building blocks of a well-developed mind at 1 000 days, are:

  • The correct food and health of the mother and the baby
  • Love and care of the baby – developing the bond with the parents and caregivers
  • Safety and stimulation – by talking to the baby; laughing, smiling, playing with her or him, all of this help the brain to develop.
Slide supplied by Dr Malek

Slide supplied by Dr Malek

A lot of research has shown that babies with a well-developed brain at 1 000 days, do better at school and have a much higher success rate in the job market. Sadly, unwanted pregnancies and babies who had been abused, often have problems in later life – those kids could even end up in prison.

Some members of the audience

Some members of the audience

Dr Malek made it clear that all is not lost at 1 000 days, but it so much harder to catch up – and often that person will never quite achieve what others can do.

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Jacqui Couper spoke next. She wrote The precious years because a lot of parents did not understand how important those first 1 000 days were, nor did they know how to play with their kids.

The book explains how to stimulate that little brain without expensive toys and equipment;

how to monitor child development and when to ask for expert advice if a baby’s development is not how it should be. There are ways to help babies who do not develop the way they should; that is where experts like occupational therapists often need to help.

Jacqui's youngest was in the audience

Jacqui’s youngest was in the audience

Jacqui told us she called the book The precious years, because people tend to look after precious things and would want to spend time with them.

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Nadia Viljoen was next to speak on her book 1-2-3 Play to grow. She made us stand on one leg, with our eyes closed, which was a lot of fun.

Her book is aimed at kids from about two until the teenage years. There are 123 games in the book, each categorised according to the appropriate age.

Everybody was made to stand on one leg

With 123 games, there is something for everyone

The book also gives the parents and teachers information on motor-skill goals for every age group in terms of balance, coordination, spatial orientation, rhythm, swiftness, reaction time and laterality.

Ordinary games can help our kids with school-readiness. Nadia finds that kids tend to better at school if they are able to perform physically at their age level, and that kids can improve at school if they do the right exercises.

The book uses simple games like Rotten egg, Darkroom, Hand tennis, I spy, Tip-cat, Red Rover and even Clay-stick to encourage families to have age-appropriate fun. It is the ideal book to take on a family holiday!

(Hierdie boek is ook in Afrikaans beskikbaar as 1-2-3 Groei met spel.)

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The venue was child friendly with lots of opportunity to explore.

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Dr Malek offered some resources we are happy to share.


On a related note:

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Bibliophilia worked hard to have healthy snacks available. Some cookies were old fashioned, but a lot of these snacks contained no sugar.

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Water and freshly-squeesed orange juice was served.

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While some Leopard’s Leap was on hand for the chat after the talks.

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