Picture yourself buying a new computer. It's already hard-wired, and you have an unlimited line of credit for buying the software. But the purchases have to be within a specified period of time, and after it's over, you can't buy more. Your computer will be limited to whatever software you obtain for it in that window of opportunity.
Now substitute a baby for the computer. It comes hard-wired -- the brain is ready to go. A universe of unlimited experiences and activities can make up the software. But there are time constraints for obtaining that software. Children need to begin learning in early childhood, when their brains are growing rapidly.
As a child's developing brain is exposed to experience and activities, neural circuits beyond the hard wiring begin to develop. They connect with one another in ever-increasing complexity. The more the circuits are built up, the more they can absorb. But timing is critical. Children need to build those circuits while they are young.
Lt. Gov. Betsy McCaughey Ross and the Carnegie Corp. both recently announced studies showing the value of preschool education. Ross greeted the Carnegie study with the comment: "It confirms what my report said, that pre-K is the best investment that New York can make."
The Ross report is a good first step, but more is required, starting with some support for her initiative from other state politicians.
A News editorial based on the Ross study noted pre-K saves money later. Students enrolled in state-funded Pre-K programs were 50 percent less likely to be placed in expensive special education and 26 percent less likely to repeat a grade.
I was disappointed, however, that The News confined its support for state-funded pre-K to 4-year-olds. If the implication is that it is not until age 4 that children need learning opportunities, it couldn't be more wrong. From the time they are born, babies are active learners.
Research has established that the pathways for vision to develop are established in the first months, and scientists are fairly certain that the process is the same for learning and emotional development. Learning can take place after these critical periods, but it becomes more difficult.
Language development presents an interesting example. By the age of 12 months, children's brains are wired for the phonetic sounds of their languages, and they are ready to start acquiring vocabulary. They learn words and more complex aspects of language up to about age 10. If a second language is introduced during those first 10 years, it is much easier to learn than it will be later because the language systems are still pliable.
A second language can be learned later in life, but it is harder to become fluent. However, if the phonetic system of the language is similar to the phonetic system of one's original language, the learning will be easier because the phonetic map is in the brain.
Other windows of opportunity are much shorter. Emotional control is thought to develop during the first two years. So is social attachment. Motor control begins during the prenatal period and continues for the first five years.
Math and logic pathways are developed during the first four years and, interestingly, appear to be enhanced by exposure to music. The area of the brain that processes music is located adjacent to that for math, making it easier for the neurons to communicate with one another. Music circuits themselves overlap in their window of opportunity with math circuits. They begin to develop in the third year and continue until the tenth year.
Last Feb. 19, Newsweek magazine carried a cover story titled "Your Child's Brain: How Kids Are Wired for Music, Math and Emotions." It should have been required reading for everyone in this country involved with educational issues.
Much is written and spoken regarding the breakdown of the American family. Families under stress and breaking apart may not have the necessary resources, financially or mentally, to parent in ways most beneficial to child development. Extreme stress or lack of adequate response over a period of time can interrupt or delay the development of the neural circuits.
Much is also said about the failure of our public school system. Teachers, unions, inadequate resources and values are all blamed. But children must come to school ready to learn, and that means the brain must be developed properly. For many children, good pre-K education is the best chance they will have to succeed.
Lt. Gov. Ross and her research team are to be commended for their report, which emphasizes the benefits of pre-K programs. However, New York is a state that does not mandate attendance in kindergarten or the provision of music, art and gym, whose benefits are proven, in the primary grades. If the state does not officially recognize the importance to learning of these programs, how is it to recognize the importance of pre-K to so many of our children?
DEBORAH A. HOLMAN is a Development Specialist at Baker Victory Services Early Childhood Program.