With computers and smartphones threatening to melt kids’ minds at every turn, it should come as no surprise that the trick to boosting brain development in little ones doesn’t involve a screen at all. It turns out that all parents need to encourage language and brain development in their kids is time, patience, and the willingness to engage them in some good old-fashioned conversation.
According to a study by Harvard and MIT researchers published in Psychological Science in 2018, back-and-forth conversations between an adult and a child—as opposed to just talking exposing them to words—appear to change the child’s brain.
“The important thing is not just to talk to your child, but to talk with your child,” Rachel Romeo, a graduate student at Harvard and MIT and the lead author of the paper, said in an MIT news release. “It’s not just about dumping language into your child’s brain, but to actually carry on a conversation with them.”
The study involved two days of tape-recording children between the ages of four and six. MRI scans allowed researchers to see the brain's response to an increased number of conversational turns, or back-and-forth exchanges. What they discovered is that the number of conversational turns correlated strongly with the children's scores on standardized tests of vocabulary, grammar, and verbal reasoning.
“The really novel thing about our paper is that it provides the first evidence that family conversation at home is associated with brain development in children,” John Gabrieli, an MIT professor of brain and cognitive sciences and the senior author of the study, said in the release. “It’s almost magical how parental conversation appears to influence the biological growth of the brain.”
The study also dispels a common misconception that arose from the landmark 1995 study which found a 30-million-word gap between kids from higher-income families versus lower-income families.
“There’s still a popular notion that there’s this 30-million-word gap, and we need to dump words into these kids—just talk to them all day long, or maybe sit them in front of a TV that will talk to them,” Romeo noted. “However, the brain data show that it really seems to be this interactive dialogue that is more strongly related to neural processing.”
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To help facilitate interactive, back-and-forth conversations, engage your child in topics they're interested in, ask lots of open-ended questions, and respond based on their responses.