Rush, Little Baby

How the push for infant academics may actually be a waste of time - or worse.

More and more parents are using expensive teaching methods and products in hopes of turning their infants into geniuses. But some researchers says good old fashioned play may still be the best learning tool of all.;; education; infants; magazine; video page; More and more parents are using expensive teaching methods and products in hopes of turning their infants into geniuses. Some researchers say good old fashioned play may actually be the best learning tool.
Email|Print| Text size + By Neil Swidey
October 28, 2007

The house, perched in a nice new development in an Interstate 495 belt town, looks like the home of any family of means with a little girl approaching age 3. The den is dominated by a giant, brightly colored sliding structure, the living room art consists of framed photographs of said little girl striking various poses, and the basement playroom is chock-full of stuffed animals, golden-haired dolls, and a squadron of ride-on toys lined up like a Toyota showroom. The little girl, a cutie named Morgan, would blend in easily at any playground. She has sparkling blue eyes, blond pigtails, a high-pitched, singsongy voice, and an obvious love of life. At one point, she flits out of the family room as I am chatting with Gwendolyn Anderson, the girl's at-home mom, who trained as a physician. She returns a few minutes later holding two Disney Princess dolls.

"This is a princess," Morgan says, plopping onto my lap the one with the sparkly blue dress.

"Who's your favorite princess?" I ask.

Morgan pauses for a few beats and then smiles. "The pink one!"

As the father of three young girls, the youngest exactly the same age as Morgan, I can distinguish among Disney royalty as effortlessly as a botanist can tell a pin oak from a red maple. Not exactly knowledge I'm eager to show off at the ballpark, but there's no use in pretending it's not there. Yet it dawns on me that Morgan has no idea the doll she just handed me is named Cinderella, while the one clutched to her chest answers to Sleeping Beauty. Normally, that would be no big deal, since Morgan is still young enough for her age to be tracked in months (34), and there will be plenty of time for those diabolical Mouseketeer merchandisers to get their indoctrination to take. It's just that, minutes earlier, I had gone through a drill asking Morgan to identify flashcards with the following images: the Mona Lisa, Aristotle contemplating a bust of Homer, Marie de Medici, and Erasmus of Rotterdam. She had correctly identified each one, pausing only once, when I clumsily mispronounced Erasmus's name. I couldn't tell, then, if the frozen look on little Morgan's face was the result of her not understanding what I had said, or her feeling sorry that a grown-up with gray in his hair evidently had trouble pronouncing something that came easily to her.

"She's a big fan of cubism, which is very interesting," Anderson explains. "I don't think most people realize their 2-year-old's favorite form of art."

Do crayon scribbles count?

Anderson, with the support of her husband, has been working hard to give their daughter a leg up since Morgan was in her womb, so she can be forgiven for having failed to cover the princess unit. While other moms-to-be were dog-earing their copies of What to Expect When You're Expecting, Anderson spent her pregnancy searching for the best approaches to help boost her baby's brainpower. Through a Web search, she stumbled onto the Institutes for the Achievement of Human Potential, a half-century-old operation outside Philadelphia more commonly known as the Better Baby Institute. The place was founded by Glenn Doman, a physical therapist who took what he learned helping brain-injured children recover function and applied it to well infants and toddlers in the hopes of accelerating their development. Anderson read about the Better Baby Institute's regimen of intense intellectual and physical stimulation for babies. She lingered over the organization's message that time was of the essence, since the rate of brain growth drops off precipitously after a child reaches age 6. And she took to heart the well-honed refrain from the avuncular, white-goateed Doman: "We are persuaded that every child born has, at the instant of birth, a greater potential intelligence than Leonardo da Vinci ever used."

After Morgan was born, Anderson wasted no time in following Doman's advice for cracking the da Vinci code. She skipped the swaddling and the bassinet in favor of a "crawling track" that her husband built on the floor around their bed, allowing the baby to move about safely in the middle of the night. When Morgan was 3 months old, Anderson began rapidly showing her reading and math flashcards every day. When she was 6 months old, the family traveled to Philadelphia and stayed in a hotel for a week while Anderson attended the Institutes' $1,200 "How to Multiply Your Baby's Intelligence" course. When Morgan was 10 months old, she began walking, and a few months later Santa left a pedometer in Anderson's stocking so she could keep track of her daughter's daily distances, with the goal of meeting the Institutes' benchmark of having her baby walk half a mile in 18 minutes. When she was 13 months old, Anderson had Morgan hang from a "brachiation bar" for longer and longer intervals, to prepare her for the "brachiation ladder," a contraption you and I might call "monkey bars." Around the same time, Anderson was pushing her cart down the aisle in the supermarket when Morgan pointed to a box and said "Ball!" Anderson turned to see what her 1-year-old daughter was pointing to. The only evidence of the box's contents was the word printed in red letters on the side. Balls. Anderson could hardly believe it. She rewarded Morgan by buying her one. When she got home, she told her husband, "It must be working!"

OK, by now, you've no doubt made up your mind. Some of you are convinced that this Better Baby model is bizarre to the point of being dangerous, evidence of a misguided parental pursuit of the perfect child. But others of you are intrigued, wondering if there might be something to this approach, perhaps even worrying that you may have shortchanged your infants and allowed key brain cells to die while you passively let them fall in love with Elmo rather than Erasmus.

But the story gets more complex. For instance, Anderson does not fit the stereotype of the zealously competitive stage mom willing to turn her toddler into some kind of sideshow genius. She is loving and doesn't ask Morgan to perform for family and friends; instead, she periodically videotapes Morgan's sessions to share with those who want to track her development. She shows no interest in rigidly drilling her daughter; it is bubbly Morgan who takes the lead in choosing which type of learning, from a variety of options her mom gives her, that she wants to do on any given day. True, the idea of planting an infant on the floor and drilling her with flashcards seems absurd. But it might actually be no more extreme than the increasing mania among professional parents to armor their youngsters with every educational enrichment program available - Baby Einstein DVDs at 3 months, Junior Kumon tutoring at 2 1/2 years, SAT summer camps at 15 - all at the expense of old-fashioned but vitally important unstructured play. Within a few minutes' drive from Anderson's house, in an area of bedroom communities, there are now more than a dozen private tutoring centers, many that seem to cater less to children who have remedial needs than to children whose parents need them to be advanced.

Anderson's explanation for her regimen sounds reasonable. "I feel it's a parent's role to do everything they can for their child. If I can provide something that would give her a leg up, even on my life, that would be great." Most of the parents toting their toddlers around to tutoring sessions would probably explain their motivation the same way. Good intentions, for sure. But is what they're doing really helping?

THERE WAS A TIME WHEN AMERICANS were suspicious of precociousness. In the 1950s, the oft-repeated stories about baby geniuses were ones that seldom ended well. There was the celebrated child prodigy William Sidis, who entered Harvard at age 11 only to become derided as a burnout who spent his adult days tending to his collection of streetcar transfer tickets from around the world. Educators summed up the prevailing view with a gardening metaphor: Early ripe, early rot. But then, says David Elkind, a longtime child development professor at Tufts University, came Sputnik and the startling Soviet successes in space in the late 1950s that spurred Americans to ratchet up their educational demands on the ground. After that came Head Start, the 1960s federal program aimed at closing the achievement gap by better preparing poor children before they entered school. Elkind says the choice of names for the program was unfortunate because it made many middle-class parents believe that, if there was some early-advancement special sauce that poor kids were getting, they wanted it for their kids as well. "Parents began seeing it as a race," he says.

In 1981, Elkind wrote a book called The Hurried Child, lamenting the fallout from parents thrusting their children into adulthood prematurely. His was a lonely voice back then, but his message gained traction and the book became a bestseller. Still, when the book was published last year as a 25th-anniversary edition, Elkind surveyed the landscape and decided that, in many ways, things had gotten worse.

This desire on the part of many middle-class and affluent parents to help their kids get ahead is understandable. We've all heard the predictions about how, in the downsized and outsourced economy of tomorrow, our children may be the first generation of Americans to be worse off than their parents. Into this vat of anxiety, two forces have been poured that are turning up the heat even more. First, advances in brain research have offered tantalizing clues about the magic at work in our infants' gray matter. Second, market forces have exploited these tantalizing clues and used them to sell billions of dollars' worth of educational toys and programs, often by making claims wildly beyond the conclusions drawn by the scientists who did the actual research.

Because of all the anxiety, and because of the patina of "hard" science that overlays the nascent brain-research field, many parents buy into claims that have the skimpiest of data to support them and ignore decades of solid, well-replicated but seemingly "soft" cognitive and behavioral research whose findings can often be more instructive. Consider a University of Washington study released in August that evaluated the impact on language development of educational "brain science" baby DVDs such as the hugely successful Baby Einstein series. The researchers found that among children ages 8 months to 16 months, each hour per day spent viewing these videos translated into a 17 percent decrease in vocabulary acquisition. Yet millions of parents have put their infants in front of the TV to watch those numbing sequences of floating shapes and German sounds, all in the belief that they were expanding the brains of their precious offspring. Also consider that, even in the area of brain research, one of the most intriguing new studies suggests that the brightest teenagers actually had their period of robust brain development much later than children of more average intelligence. More on that below, but here's the bumper-sticker summary: Academic late bloomers, rejoice!

At the end of August, the 76-year-old Elkind, who has spiky white hair, walks the Tufts campus. It is freshman orientation day, and the place is teeming with smiling parents helping their sons and daughters lug crates into dorm rooms. The day is the culmination of what many of those parents had been dreaming of, and in some cases angling for, ever since their children were in preschool: admission to an elite college. But Elkind's mood is different. After teaching at Tufts for 29 years, he had just retired. He says he wanted to leave "while I still have all my marbles." But also, he says, "it just lost the fun." He was worn out from students who had adopted their parents' angling, recoiling from criticism and lobbying him to goose their grades, sometimes enlisting their parents to intervene. He argues that if parents could give themselves permission to stop worrying about college acceptance letters while their kids were still in booster seats, everyone would be a lot better off. Even their justification for getting their children into the race so early - to improve their economic futures in an uncertain time - seems to him to be completely off-base. Those most likely to succeed in tomorrow's knowledge economy, he argues, won't be the weary souls who have been drilled since birth to master memorization, but rather the creative people who can solve problems and think independently.

Retirement is allowing Elkind more time to work in his garden. He had been tending to it faithfully all summer, and as he walks the Tufts campus he has the crimson complexion to prove it. But even in his tomato plants he finds echoes of the message he's been pounding away at for most of his professional life: "A gardener can't hurry the ripening of tomatoes."

SPEND ENOUGH TIME in suburban preschools these days, and you're bound to hear one parent or another uttering a boast masquerading as a complaint about how they just can't keep the books coming fast enough for their precocious 3- or 4-year-old reader. Odds are, there's probably no reason to boast. Researchers who've been marinating in reading studies for years say a tiny percentage of children - maybe 3 percent, maybe a little more or less - can be classified as truly early readers. These 3- or 4-year-olds understand phonics and context, and they will likely keep up their accelerated reading pace throughout their school years. Bravo to those kids. Reading is the gateway to so much of life's important learning, so a few years more of it can't hurt them.

But most of the other early readers bringing smiles to their parents' faces aren't really reading at all. They're demonstrating merely that they've memorized lots of words by sight. Instead of understanding the discrete sounds and segments that make up the word CAT, and understanding that each letter in the word has both its own name and its own sound or group of sounds, these children - like our early ancestors - see it as just a whole symbol for the furry feline. Change the first letter to E, and they might still think feline, until they memorize the new word. Studies have demonstrated that the early reading advances these kids show typically wash out a few years down the line.

If parents - or the professionals they hire - want to invest time drilling their child to read early, even if they see their child's lead disappear by later grades, there's no harm except wasted time, right? Well, actually, no.

For starters, let's consider the impact of academic expectations on the preschool experience. Temple University psychologist Kathy Hirsh-Pasek and two colleagues compared children in academically oriented preschools with those in socially oriented preschools. At age 5, those in the academic group knew more numbers and letters than their counterparts in the social group. But those gains faded away by around the first grade. And the kids from the academic preschools were observed to be less creative and less enthusiastic about learning.

When I went to kindergarten, I was expected to learn how to play with others and be exposed to the alphabet through inflatable letter characters. (I still remember that Miss A said achoo all the time, and Mr. V had a violet velvet vest.) But today's typical concept of kindergarten preparedness is far more rigorous. Part of that change in expectations has to do with external forces - federal and state standards and testing regimens. Yet I have to think that some of it has to do with the expectations parents bring with them when they drop their children off at school. If parents have spent time and money on tutoring for their little ones before formal schooling begins, are they going to be content to watch them be taught the same lessons in a kindergarten class? And what about the kids who didn't have this enrichment tutoring? In some communities, it has become relatively common to see parents "redshirt" their kids, particularly if they are boys, giving them an extra year in preschool so they are better able to handle the stiffer standards of kindergarten. But you can see how, with more kids entering kindergarten a calendar year older than their peers, this trend might eventually just raise the bar of expectations even higher for everyone.

A classic study in the 1930s by noted researcher and Illinois educator Carleton Washburne compared the trajectories of children who had begun reading at several ages, up to 7. Washburne concluded that, in general, a child could best learn to read beginning around the age of 6. By middle school, he found no appreciable difference in reading levels between the kids who had started young versus the kids who had started later, except the earlier readers appeared to be less motivated and less excited about reading. More recent research also raises doubt about the push for early readers. A cross-cultural study of European children published in 2003 in the British Journal of Psychology found those taught to read at age 5 had more reading problems than those who were taught at age 7. The findings supported a 1997 report critical of Britain's early-reading model.

What might explain this? In her fascinating new book Proust and the Squid: The Story and Science of the Reading Brain, Maryanne Wolf offers some answers. True reading requires the integration of complicated functions from different regions of the brain - visual, auditory, linguistic, conceptual - a process that takes time. The speed with which these regions can be integrated depends on something called myelination, in which the tails (or axons) of neurons in the brain are wrapped in a fatty sheathing that makes them perform better. For these regions of the brain to interact efficiently, they need one neuron to talk to another neuron in rapid succession. And to do that well, those neuron tails need lots of myelin. Myelination rates can vary, but Wolf says generally these pivotal regions aren't fully myelinated until sometime between the ages of 5 and 7, with boys probably being on the later side.

That's why many kids can master some components of reading at an early age, such as the visual. But other components, such as phonemic awareness - the idea that a word is made up of discrete sounds - typically take longer. Wolf, a cognitive neuroscientist and child development professor at Tufts, relates how a colleague once asked a kindergartner what the first sound in the word "cat" was. The child perked up and replied, "Meow."

"There is a really good reason why, across the world, literacy training is not begun until 5 to 7," Wolf says. "Some countries, such as Austria, don't want children taught reading until 7." For what it's worth, that's the same Austria with a per-capita Nobel-laureate rate many times higher than that of Japan, the land that spawned Junior Kumon.

After poring over the available research, Wolf concludes in her book, "Many efforts to teach a child to read before 4 or 5 years of age are biologically precipitate and potentially counterproductive for many children." The danger in pushing reading too early, Wolf says, is that, for many children, we may be asking them to do something for which their brains are not ready. "You run the risk of making a child feel like a failure before they've even begun," she says. And while the gains from early reading may fade away, the damage from being tagged a slow kid at a young age has the potential to be permanent.

But wait a minute. Haven't we all heard about the "critical periods" of birth to 3, and 3 to 6, where the human brain is growing the fastest, has the most plasticity, and is most able to learn new skills? When it comes to learning a foreign language, we all know that a 3-year-old will outpace the 43-year-old just about every time. Doesn't it follow that learning skills besides a foreign language will also be easier in the younger child?

Again, not exactly. There's no question that if you want your child to be bilingual or trilingual, it's better to start sooner. But that may be because language - like mobility and vision - is a skill the species has historically depended on for survival. As Wolf says, "We were never born to read." Or, for that matter, to play chess or do long division. The latter are skills the species survived for a long time without having, and researchers have found that there typically isn't a critical period for learning them.

This doesn't mean that early exposure to learning isn't important for kids. It is vitally important. It should just be the right kind of learning, and the right kind of exposure. Study after study shows the best thing parents can do for their children is give them a nurturing, rich, vibrant environment, reading to them often and exposing them to lots of language in organic ways. Reading books out loud is most effective when the parent uses the words on the page to help the child make connections to his or her own world. "Pooh and Piglet got lost in the Hundred Acre Wood. Do you remember a time when we got lost in the park?" The exposure to rhyming and wordplay that springs from Mother Goose and other nursery rhymes is particularly effective, according to Wolf, in helping prepare a child to read.

Wolf says the best predictor of how a child will do in school is not reading ability but rather the size and richness of the child's vocabulary. And, as with so much in life, the kids whose parents worry about this area the most tend to be the kids we need to worry about least. Veteran early-childhood researchers Betty Hart and Todd Risley conducted a meticulous longitudinal study tracking the vocabulary growth in young children coming from three types of families: professional class, working class, and those who were on welfare. The results were stunning, and depressing for anyone who is troubled by inequity. They found that the children were very much a product of what they were exposed to by their parents: between 86 and 98 percent of the words in their vocabularies were also words their parents used. Across four years, the average child from a professional family would have heard nearly 45 million words spoken to them, the average child from a working class family, 26 million, and the average child from a family on welfare, 13 million. That means that compared with the affluent child, the poor child would be starting school with an astonishing deficit of 32 million words of language experience. How can that child's entire educational career not, on some level, become a demoralizing case of catchup?

As long as parents are exposing their children to a nurturing, vibrant environment, reading to them regularly, and speaking with them intelligently, they should feel free to put the flash cards away. I remember well the day our oldest daughter, then about three months shy of her sixth birthday, first realized she could read. She put down one of the Dick and Jane books my wife and I had been reading with her for some time, the same series our parents had used to help us decode the printed word, and she shrieked with joy. And pride. Since then, encouraged by talented teachers, she has turned into a voracious, self-motivated reader who carries a book wherever she goes. Still, I have no way of knowing if the stimulating but generally laissez-faire environment we've tried to provide will ultimately prove to have been the right approach. But I can tell you this much: Her epiphany that day was a magical moment that we, and she, will always treasure. And for me, if it had not unfolded naturally but rather been the byproduct of tutoring sessions and tedious benchmarks, it would have felt a whole lot less magical.

AFTER 20 MINUTES, THE DIGITAL STOPWATCH chirps, and the stocking-footed children are led out of science class to music class across the hall. There, Kathy Myers, a round-faced woman with round glasses and curly blond hair, leads her class in a lesson on Impressionist composers. She sits down on the carpeted platform at the front of the room and pulls out large flashcards featuring the names of composers from this category. In eight seconds, she flips through seven cards for seven composers, from Frederick Delius to Maurice Ravel, before beginning a longer riff extolling the genius of Claude Debussy and his "Sunken Cathedral" masterpiece. Her students, four boys and four girls wearing lavender overalls or jumpers and bearing familiar names like Isabel and Benjamin, listen attentively. They range in age from 5 down to 2 1/2.

It is a brilliant September day, and I am sitting in a second-floor room in the stately old mansion that houses the Institutes for the Achievement of Human Potential near Chestnut Hill, Pennsylvania. I had heard passionate criticism of the Better Baby Institute model from several academics in the field, but I felt I needed to see the classes in action myself. Several of the critics I spoke with complained that the Institutes did not let academic researchers in, but the staff couldn't have been more welcoming to me. The founder, Glenn Doman, who had turned 88 two weeks earlier, remains an active presence on campus, though his daughter, Janet Doman, has since 1980 served as the Institutes' director. Janet, an elegant 58-year-old wearing a lavender blazer, her charcoal hair pulled back in a tight bun, leads me through the Institutes' once-a-week program for preschoolers. (The campus also features a small school for children in first through eighth grades as well as several programs for brain-injured children and their parents.) Across the morning, as we advance through fast-paced 20-minute blocks of science, music, Japanese, and gymnastics, I meet students and parents who seem uniformly friendly, bright and polite. Indeed, there seems to be much to recommend about the place.

The Domans have sold millions of books, particularly How to Teach Your Baby to Read, and they bill their Gentle Revolution collection as the number-one best-selling parenting series. Yet money hardly seems to motivate them. The mansion, which the nonprofit Institutes had managed to buy decades earlier, was once splendid, but it is now tired, with faded paint and worn carpets. Janet tells me the main reason they keep the demonstration school small is that they want parents of limited means to be able to send their children. Accordingly, they don't charge tuition for the school, and Janet Doman says that many of the parents are working class. She also says she is appalled by the craven manner in which the marketplace has sought to cash in on the teachings about the importance of early, intense infant education so identified with her father.

In fact, even if Glenn Doman isn't as widely known as some parenting experts, all his preaching on early intervention has had a major influence on the infant education industry. And even those who disagree with his message would have to agree that he is one heck of an engaging messenger. I have no idea if there is intellectual rigor in his videotaped rant deconstructing children's assumed love of pat-a-cake by using the example of American diplomats held hostage overseas, but I can say this: It makes for riveting television. (You can find it at And some of his ideas, such as his withering critique of the way we tend to confine newborns with swaddling and cell-like cribs, can't help but get you thinking. When I read about his thought-provoking views on visual convergence - the ability to use two eyes together, harmoniously - and the linkage he finds between mobility and visual development, I had to wonder if my instinct as a lefthander to bat righty and my confusion over which hand to use when handling a bow and arrow or a golf club could somehow be traced back to an incomplete crawling period during infancy. What most impressed me about the program was how so many parents told me it had helped them feel more effective. There's something to be said for anything that boosts confidence among today's overly anxious parents.

Still, I have to say that, as pleasant as everyone was, I couldn't get past how some parts of the Institutes' regimen struck me as more than a little batty. I observed a very nice mother of three putting her 3- month-old son through the paces, earnestly showing him "Bits of Intelligence" flash cards containing facts about obscure insects like the two-spotted ladybird beetle and the periodical cicada, and doing nothing beyond cooing supportively as the baby bawled while struggling to inch his way down an elevated crawling track. Watching this scene, I couldn't help but wonder if embracing the program requires a giant leap of faith. How else to view a program that advises you to bring your newborn into a darkened room and point a flashlight at his eyes for a minute, 10 times a day? Or to put him in a neck brace and do a series of balancing exercises twice a day that involve swinging your baby around and tossing him in the air?

Then there is the issue of how decades of preaching on how to build better babies seem to have helped fuel our current contagion of competitiveness among parents. Janet Doman tells me that their goal is only to help parents unlock their children's potential, and not to turn child-rearing into a race. She even includes an afterword in her most recent book, How Smart Is Your Baby?, distancing herself from the book's title. "This book was never meant to be about some infantile competition," she writes. But it's hard to argue convincingly that a program advising parents to keep scrupulous records of their child's every movement and presenting them with elaborate milestone charts to be monitored compulsively cannot, in important ways, introduce competition and anxiety into their lives.

Yet the biggest problem with the Better Baby Institute model is that after decades, it has astonishingly little hard data to back up its claims. (I'm referring here to its work with well children, not the brain-injured.) Glenn Doman points to some old studies that showed rats kept in deprived environments had small, undeveloped brains while those kept in stimulating environments had larger, higher-functioning brains. But other scholars have pointed out that the kind of deprivation the first group of rats lived in thankfully has no equivalent among humans. Also, the rats in the study who turned out to have the best brains came from a third group who were allowed to grow up in their natural environments.

When I ask Janet for evidence that the program works, she repeatedly invokes examples of now-grown alumni, particularly her nephews. When I press her for evidence that transcends anecdote, she concedes, "For us, it's all pretty much anecdotal." She says that because the Institutes plows whatever funds it has right back into its programs, it has never been able to afford rigorous scientific studies to document its performance. That commitment to the program is admirable, but after 50 years, the Domans should be able to point to more than anecdotes. I'm sure there are teams of researchers who would love to study the program, and who could scare up the necessary funds to do it right.

I have a bold suggestion for a team they should consider. Just a 15-minute drive from the Institutes, on a satellite campus of Temple University in rural Ambler, Pennsylvania, is the university's Infant Laboratory. Kathy Hirsh-Pasek, the child psychologist who did the study comparing academic and social preschools, is co-director of the lab. Hirsh-Pasek's life's work can be seen as a sort of rebuttal to the Domans. A passionate advocate for the return of unstructured play into childhood, she is the coauthor of the highly readable Einstein Never Used Flash Cards. Hirsh-Pasek managed to see the Better Baby Institute many years back, but says she doubts they'd ever let her back in given her views. "There is no data showing their kids are doing any better than other kids with highly motivated parents," she says. "And they're not producing Olympic athletes or Nobel laureates, or you can be sure we'd be hearing about it." (If young Morgan is able to keep up her current lead and ends up making it to Harvard, it may have less to do with the "Bits of Intelligence" flashcards she saw as an infant than the fact that she was exposed to a stimulating, nurturing environment and comes from good academic stock - her mother, uncle, and grandfather all studied at Harvard.)

That's why, for the Domans, it could be a public relations master stroke to open up their half-century-old books to one of their most persistent critics, in the search for rigorous research to test their claims. Until then, Hirsh-Pasek and her students at the Temple lab soldier on with a host of more modest studies whose findings appear in general to support her view that play is the thing. After a morning at the Better Baby Institute, I spent the afternoon in the brightly decorated, low-ceilinged Temple lab observing some of these studies in action. One study, of a Sesame Workshop educational video designed to teach kids about verbs, suggests that 2 1/2-to 3-year-olds generally don't understand what they are being taught on the screen. But comprehension goes way up when a live adult introduces the video with a brief puppet show. Along similar lines, a study comparing comprehension rates of traditional books read by a parent with the electronic "console" books shows how the battery-operated variety tends to shut out the parent and reduce the ability of the child to follow a linear story line.

Hirsh-Pasek urges parents to put away all the gadgets and encourage their preschoolers to play with blocks or, better yet, get down on the living room floor with them and build forts using blankets and chairs. Somehow, though, parents have come to believe this kind of play is inconsequential compared with "educational" materials designed to maximize brain growth. In fact, Hirsh-Pasek argues that this heightened push for early learning might even slow down normal brain development through a phenomenon known as neurological "crowding," where information jams up the synapses in the brain that might best be reserved for more creative tasks in later years. Remember that in his early years, Einstein was considered just an average student.

ALL OF THIS BRINGS US BACK TO THAT surprising brain study giving late bloomers cause for celebration. Researchers from the National Institutes of Mental Health performed periodic MRI brain scans on children and teens ranging in age from 5 to 19, tracking the relationship between the thickness of the brain's outer mantle, or cortex, with the subject's IQ. They found that the people whose IQ scores put them in the "superior intelligence" category had cortexes that matured much later than those of average intelligence. The cortexes of the smartest kids peaked by around age 11 or 12, whereas the average kids' peaked by around age 8. Jay Giedd, one of the lead researchers, says he and his colleagues were initially taken aback by the findings, but with more reflection they realized they made all kinds of sense. "By having this peak period of plasticity later," he says, "the brain is adapting to the 12-year-old world, which is more complicated, more similar to the adult world, than the 8-year-old world."

The idea is, patience pays off. "It's like the tortoise and the hare," says Giedd, a psychiatrist and brain-imaging specialist. "I'm not suggesting that we tell people to celebrate if their child is not reading at age 6. But for many people who didn't read at age 2 - which is a ridiculous level - they may not only catch up, but actually surpass those few kids that did." The point, he says, is "that until the brain is at a certain level, a lot of that instruction is wasted."

The danger is that if we allow the hares to redefine reasonable expectations, the tortoises may lose motivation and accept the conclusions made about them after just the first few laps. What if a kid who has the potential someday to write the next great American novel throws up his arms in the second grade and says, "I'm no good at reading"?

There's probably a reason, Giedd says, that researchers have found that very few Nobel laureates were child prodigies. They were more typically solid students, and many were late bloomers academically. "This notion of a chain of events going from preschool to Harvard - there's simply no basis for it."

Still, Giedd understands how easy it for parents to lose their bearings in the fog of the race. He and his wife, a child psychiatrist, live with their four children in the affluent Washington, D.C., suburb of Potomac, Maryland. When their oldest was 4, they took her for an admission interview at the most highly regarded preschool in town. Giedd and his wife, both high achievers who imagined the same for their daughter, found themselves nervously hoping she would ace her interview. "She pretended she was a horse the whole time," he recalls, laughing. "When she was asked how old she was, she tapped her foot four times."

When she failed to get in, Giedd found himself briefly lamenting to his wife, "Oh well, there goes her future."

Not quite. Today his daughter, who is 15 and no longer using her foot to transmit that information, is an avid painter and a competitive cross-country runner. And, yes, a straight-A student.

Neil Swidey is a staff writer for the Globe Magazine. E-mail him at

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