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The answer is probably “yes.” Yes, your child – every child – should walk to school if it’s possible to do so.  There are solid reasons why.

First off, early morning exposure to the outdoors contributes to better sleep at night. This is so counter-intuitive that it needs some explanation. Sunlight tells the brain to wake up and resets a person’s biological clock. Without this reset, the brain’s natural cycle is longer than 24 hours, meaning that a person is likely to gradually go to sleep later and later – and get up later and later. To keep the brain on track, outdoor light early in the morning (even on cloudy days) is important.

To wake your child’s head up for school and get your child’s head to sleep at night, walking to school is the perfect solution.

Second, early morning exercise has been demonstrated to increase learning and lead to academic success. A study at one high school that compared students who started the day with gym class to those who took gym later in the day found great increases in academic success among the early exercises. In fact, students with first-period gym and who had access throughout the day to exercise equipment doubled their reading scores and increased their math scores by as much as 20 times.

Walking to school is a simple way to get early exercise into the day. Walking gets the brain going, increases oxygen to the brain and releases neurotrophic factors essential to brain health. Walking anytime during the day can do this, but why not start the day off right?

In earlier eras, all children walked to school. We’ve fallen so much into the habit of transportation to school that even when a child is not eligible for school bus service, parents are likely to drive their child to school in the family car. This leads to congestion around schools twice each day, contributes to air pollution around school buildings, and adds to the danger for children as they enter and exit the school. You can reverse this trend and make your child smarter at the same time. Here are some tips.

  1. Walk to school with your child. There are few greater pleasures than walking and talking to and from school. The walk back home alone is the perfect time to think about your own day too.
  2. Link up with other parents and take it in turns to walk to and from school with children from several families. Organize a Walking Schoolbus in your neighborhood.
  3. Drive part way if the walk is too long. Parking several blocks from the school and walking the rest of the way gives your child the benefits of an early morning walk but keeps the distance manageable and reduces traffic around the school.
  4. Walk to school in the morning and let your child take the bus or a car home.
  5. Don’t let the weather stop you. Remember that weather almost always seems worse from inside the house. Get out in the weather and enjoy every day, not just the sunny ones.
  6. Just do it. There are lots of excuses. Don’t accept any of them. Instead, work through solutions to the barriers and make walking to school what your child does.

How would the day be different if it started more calmly, with a bit of exercise, a bit of seeing what’s happening in the neighborhood, a bit of conversation with your child? If you think that recapturing just a bit of a past pattern might get the day off right, then do it. Start a trend. Let your child walk to school.


© 2014, Patricia Nan Anderson. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed. Ask for Dr. Anderson’s book, Parenting: A Field Guide, at your favorite bookstore.

An old nursery rhyme ends, “Are your children in their beds? For now it’s eight o’clock!” A new study demonstrates that the advice implied in this rhyme is spot-on. A regular bedtime is important in the preschool years especially, for good brain development.

In this study, the family routines of 11,000 preschoolers evaluated. The researchers wanted to know if bedtime, including the time a child goes to bed and how consistent the daily bedtime is, has an effect on later school performance. They looked at children’s bedtimes at three ages: 3, 5 and 7 years old.

The researchers found that for three-year-olds, bedtimes tend to be irregular, with 1 in 5 children going to bed at different times from night to night. In addition, irregular bedtimes at age three was linked to later poorer ability in math and reading in school. The effect of inconsistent bedtime at age 5 and 7 didn’t have so great an effect, indicating that regular bedtimes are most important for younger children.

This is unexpected. We parents tend to think that regular bedtimes are most important once children start school. We tend to be more casual about bedtimes for three-year-olds, especially since children this age often resist going to bed and may get up several times even after they’ve been put down to sleep.

If bedtime is haphazard at your house it’s time to make a change. Here’s how.

  1. Decide on a bedtime. Remember that preschool children need 11 to 14 hours of sleep each night, not including daytime naps. If your family has a regular wake-up time, dictated by the time needed to get out the door in the morning, count back from that time to find a good bedtime.
  2. Allow for the bedtime routine. Now that you’ve got the time your child should be in bed, falling asleep, figure out how much time it usually takes to get him there. Notice how long it usually takes to do a bath, brush teeth, get pajamas on, and read a story. Include in this typical timespan whatever is dedicated to “two minutes more” playtime, to tantrums pitched on the way to bed, and to wanderings out of bed after the child’s door is closed. All of this time is added onto the bedtime you already decided on.
  3. Get your child to bed on time. This may mean your whole family settles down earlier than they have been, so the preschooler can get his sleep. Be consistent. Stick with the regular bedtime every night without fail. It may take several days for the new habits to establish themselves, so give yourself and your child time.
  4. Enjoy your evening! Having a consistent bedtime is good for your preschool child, but it’s also good for you. You might find that you are more relaxed and even sleep better once some of the late-night shenanigans with your child are a thing of the past.

Tonight is a good night to start getting things back on track. Your child’s later school success may depend on it.

© 2013, Patricia Nan Anderson. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed. Ask for Dr. Anderson’s new book, Developmentally Appropriate Parenting, at your favorite bookstore.

Cuddling a baby is one of life’s great pleasures. But new research suggests that cuddling, nursing, and stroking an infant may actually affect brain development at the exact moment it’s happening.  A parent’s care may directly shape early neural activity and contribute to brain growth.

The study that has neurologists paying attention this week didn’t involve human babies. It involved newborn rats and their mothers. To be able to view brain activity in the moment, scientists at New York University’s Langone Medical Center inserted wireless transmitters into the brains of one rat pup per litter. They then videotaped activity in the nest, as the mother rats cared for all the pups in their litters. By synchronizing the video with the recorded brainwave activity, scientists were able to see what actions by the mothers affected pups’ brains in what ways.

There were significant differences in brain activity when the pups were left alone in the nest, when the pups were nursing, and when the mothers were grooming them. All of these actions by the mother are normal and necessary and all of the brain reactions of the pups were expected. What was unexpected was the as-it-happened quality of the brain responses. These were not things that happened later. Baby rats’ brains were changed immediately.

Lead researcher Regina Sullivan said, “Our research shows how in mammals the mother’s sensory stimulation helps sculpt and mold the infant’s growing brain and helps define the role played by ‘nurturing’ in healthy brain development, and offers overall greater insight into what constitutes good mothering.”

Good mothering is what everyone wants to deliver. Even though this study was conducted with rats – for obvious ethical reasons, such a study couldn’t be done in the same way with human babies – the point for we human parents is that careful nurturing and the time it takes to provide careful nurturing is an essential for development. It’s required by our biology. Mother Nature expects mothers to nurture.

What does this mean for new parents?

  1. Cherish the time you have with your baby. Even though baby care may be repetitive, messy, stressful, and even boring, being connected to your child and fully engaged in care is a good thing. It translates into optimal development.
  2. Strive to remain calm and unhurried when you care for your newborn. Mother rats are not thinking of six things at once. They think only of one thing – their infants. Never treat your baby roughly, never prop a bottle for feeding, and never leave a child to cry. No babies were meant to be treated that way.
  3. Spend as much time as you can with your baby for at least the first four months. This may mean taking an extended maternity leave or working from home. In the study, the baby rats’ brains became less instantly sensitive to their mothers at the time of weaning onto solid foods. Give your own child the same uninterrupted time, if you can do it.
  4. If you must choose an alternative caregiver for your child’s early months, choose wisely. Find a caregiver who takes seriously the needs of an infant and who is not distracted by other babies or children. The brain development that happens through everyday care is development that isn’t easily added in later.

Your baby only has one brain and now we can suspect that even everyday parenting has an impact on that brain. Do your best every day to nurture your child.

© 2014, Patricia Nan Anderson. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed. Ask for Dr. Anderson’s book, Parenting: A Field Guide, at your favorite bookstore.

Did you know your brain is as active when you’re asleep as when you’re awake?

The whole point of sleep, scientists now believe, is not to rest your head but to pause everything else your body is doing so your brain can get to work. It’s like a store-closing at 10 pm. It’s not that the entire Target goes dark but just that need to interact with customers and makes sales is stopped. In the wee hours of the night is when floors are mopped, shelves are dusted, and stock in replenished and rearranged.

So it is with your brain – and with your child’s brain. During sleep, memories are solidified and the learning that happened during the day is incorporated. All those synaptic connections that make a person smarter and more capable link up during sleep.

And not just during sleep at night. Sleep during the day has the same brain-enhancing effect. Children are smarter after a nap.

Researchers Rebecca Gomez and Susanne Diekelmann recently concluded several studies that demonstrate this fact. In one study, year-old babies who were playing heard a voice over a loudspeaker talking in a made-up language. After this training period, some of the babies napped and some stayed awake. The babies who napped were able, after they awoke, to recognize grammatic elements of the new language and even apply them to new sentences (this was tested by babies’ reaction to “correct” and “incorrect” uses of the language heard through headphones). But the babies who’d stayed awake could not.

In a similar language study with preschoolers the same effect was found. Recalling new words was easier for kids who had taken a nap after hearing new words in conversation than it was for kids who had not napped. While preschoolers, with more mature brains than babies’, were not able to generalize pre-nap learning to new situations as the infants could, they were more able after a nap to remember generalizations learned before a nap. For example, they were more able to recognize that the letter A in different fonts is the same letter every time.

The take-away message is obvious: make sure your small children take their naps.

  1. Naptime should be sacred. Try very hard to keep to a consistent nap schedule, which makes it easier for children to fall asleep easily. Keep noise and other interruptions to a minimum during naptime.
  2. Don’t let your child give up naps too soon. It’s common for even toddlers to appear to have “outgrown” their naps but this isn’t true. Other research of Gomez and Diekelmann has shown that even children who nap only infrequently still learn best on their “nap days.”
  3. Notice that “quiet time” doesn’t replace a nap, from the brain’s perspective. To connect up new learning, the brain needs a complete shutdown of activity. Quiet time may be refreshing and make a good break in the day, but it’s not the same.
  4. As children do outgrow their naps, be certain they get plenty of sleep at night. Small children need 12 to 14 hours of sleep every night. Get them to bed in plenty of time to sleep all they need before it’s time to wake up.

By the way, the value of sleep continues for adults. The phrase, “Let me sleep on it,” has roots in fact: learning and memory formation happen during sleep so that we’re all smarter when we wake up.

To be smarter, take a nap. Nap when your children do!



© 2014, Patricia Nan Anderson. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed. Ask for Dr. Anderson’s new book, Parenting: A Field Guide, at your favorite bookstore.

Block play has been around for a very long time and wooden blocks are a staple of preschool equipment. These days, children at home enjoy wooden blocks, but also Lincoln Logs, Lego, and other building toys. Have you ever wondered why block play seems so interesting? What do kids get out of it?

A study published this month in the journal Child Development found that block play develops children’s spatial reasoning ability, even in children as young as three. As you might remember, spatial reasoning is a key element in intelligence tests. Those puzzles about rotating figures, deciding what pieces would fit into an irregular shape, and even finding the example that is the same as another from a set of very similar possibilities – these are all tests of spatial reasoning and they are all indicators of higher-level thinking skill.

In addition to just increasing brain power, playing with blocks of all sorts increases children’s math ability. They master concepts of shape and size, determine relationships between blocks (“which is under another?”) and solve spatial problems as part of building structures.

In one experiment, three-year-old children were asked to use Duplo sized Legos to recreate a model shape. Six of these tasks ranged in difficulty from “easy” to “tricky.” Just about all the children were able to duplicate a model that required only two pieces. But only children whose parents reported more block play at home and more conversation at home about block play were able to recreate the most difficult models.

The take-aways from this study are obvious:

  1. Provide your child with blocks, Lego, puzzles, and other hands-on toys requiring development of spatial relations. Notice that, while video games are often touted as means of developing spatial relations skill, hands-on play with “real” blocks should come first.
  2. Remember that blocks are not “boy toys.” Girls, who may have been discouraged in years past from playing with blocks, should build with blocks too. Last I checked, girls are as smart as boys and need the same opportunities to learn too.
  3. Talk about spatial relations with your child. Use words like “between,” “under,” “beside,” and so forth when you play together with blocks and in other situations throughout the day.
  4. Start now. The three-year-olds in the study were demonstrating what they had learned in their first few years of life. Find block toys that are safe for small children and get down on the floor and play.

Parents often think of math as a “school skill.” This study demonstrates once again that what is learned in school builds on what children have learned already at home. Parents are a child’s first teachers and, happily, part of that teaching includes playing with blocks.


© 2013, Patricia Nan Anderson. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed. Ask for Dr. Anderson’s new book, Developmentally Appropriate Parenting, at your favorite bookstore.

When is bedtime at your house for your preschool children? If your answer something like “It depends” then you could be setting your family up for problems. A new study from University College London, published in the journal Pediatrics, found that children whose bedtimes are variable are more likely to be behavior problems for Mom and Dad.

Bedtimes reported by parents of 10,000 English 3-, 5- and 7-year-old children were compared to parents’ and teachers’ reports of children’s behavior. A clear link was found between irregular bedtimes and hyperactivity, conduct disorders, problems getting along with friends, and emotional outbursts. The longer irregular bedtimes persisted and the older children got, the more severe the behavior problems became.

Researchers speculate that variable bedtimes throw off the body’s circadian rhythm, leading to sleep deprivation. Sleep deprivation disrupts essential brain functions that occur during sleep and interferes with neural development of brain areas needed for behavior regulation.

They found that irregular bedtimes are most common among three-year-olds, when 1 in 5 children go to sleep at different times each night – and when behavior struggles and tantrums are common! By age seven, most children go to bed between 7:30 and 8:30 pm but children still up at 9:00 pm or who continue to go to bed at odd times continue to struggle with behavior.

Every parent knows that children who are overtired or who didn’t get a good night’s sleep are more likely to be irritable and unfocused. Imagine that this is a child’s daily experience. As lead researcher Yvonne Kelly notes, “Not having fixed bedtimes, accompanied by a constant sense of flux, induces a state of body and mind akin to jet lag.”

It’s obvious that irregular bedtimes might have daytime consequences.

What can you do?

  1. Set a bedtime and stick to it. Don’t let small children stay up to watch television, so finish a game, or participate in evening activities. Get things wrapped up in time for the same bedtime every night.
  2. Maintain your child’s bedtime even on weekends and vacations. Goodness knows, you want your child to be sweet when she’s around you all day. And just as jetlag lingers for a day or two, a late-night on the weekend may have repercussions for your child’s learning later in the week.
  3. Make certain the sleeping arrangements provided to your child work for him. If older or younger children disrupt your child’s sleep, take steps to adjust the sleeping situation.
  4. Avoid letting your child watch television or play with computers or cellphones in bed. The light from these screens disrupts the release of the sleep hormone melatonin and can lead to sleep deprivation.
  5. If you allow your child to read in bed, have a firm “lights out” limit. Yes, we want our children to enjoy reading. But they need their sleep too.

The good news, according to the study, is that behavior problems caused by irregular bedtimes are reversible. Once children start going to bed at a the same time each night, they became better behaved during the day.

Having trouble with your child’s behavior? Look at her bedtime. If it’s variable, just setting a more regular sleep schedule may make a difference.


© 2013, Patricia Nan Anderson. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed. Ask for Dr. Anderson’s new book, Developmentally Appropriate Parenting, at your favorite bookstore.

Over the preschool years, children gradually develop the idea that other people think their own thoughts. This is called developing a “theory of mind” and it’s a key step in knowing right from wrong. For one thing, once a child understands that others have thoughts of their own, she can understand that others might cause things to happen on purpose or that things can happen just by accident.

One way researchers test for theory of mind is with this interesting experiment.

Two children are in a room. A researcher opens a box to show both children that the box contains candy. One of the children is then sent out of the room.

While the second child watches, the researcher empties the candy from the box and replaces it with pencils. He then asks the child, “When your friend comes back in the room, what will he think is in the box?”

The child who has developed a theory of mind will answer, “Candy.” This child can imagine that the first child still holds in mind the original contents of the box and doesn’t know that the candy has been replaced.

The child who hasn’t developed a theory of mind will answer, “Pencils.” This child knows that pencils are now in the box and can’t realize that the child who is out of the room doesn’t know about the switch.

Theory of mind usually develops sometime between ages four and seven.

This theory of mind affects how children view what happens to them. The ego-centered child who hasn’t developed a theory of mind believes that whatever you do you intended to do. If you accidentally bump into her, she believes you meant to do it and is naturally upset with you. This explains some of the outrage toddlers and young preschoolers express over accidents that seem to us not worth such a reaction.

The child who has developed a theory of mind understands that what you were thinking at the time you bumped into her matters. If you intended to hit her then she is justified in feeling upset. But if you hit her by accident then she realizes she was not treated unfairly.

Theory of mind gives us clues about children’s behavior too. Being able to tell right from wrong involves this ability to determine our own intentions and the intentions of others. People who have development theory of mind understand that accidents carry little moral weight. Unless we contributed to the accident by our negligence, things that happen by accident are not our fault. But if we intended a bad thing to happen to someone else, then it was our fault and we should feel guilty. Preschoolers understand this. They often bop someone over the head then claim it “was an accident.”

A theory of mind develops as a child’s brain develops and there’s not much you need to do to make it happen quicker. But once your child seems to understand that others can have purposes of their own, you can reinforce the moral difference between intentional acts and accidents. Be careful not to punish your child for what was clearly an accident. And point out to your young child that meaning to hurt someone makes the action punishable.

Intention counts.
© 2013, Patricia Nan Anderson. All rights reserved.