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Brain power



Deborah McNelis and Mathew, 2, work on brain-building activities McNelis has designed for braininsights, an interactive program for children birth to age 5.

Sheís not out to create miniature Einsteins or Mozarts, but Deborah McNelis of New Berlin wants parents to understand the crucial role they play in the brain development of their children.

"About 90 percent of the brain develops in the childís first five years," says McNelis, a former early childhood education teacher and early childhood degree instructor, and creator of braininsights, a series of materials designed to make it easy for a parent to provide learning experiences and have brain-building interactions with their kids.

McNelis says the latest scientific research demonstrates that a childís brain is physically "wired" by genetic factors as well as the experiences they have early in life. One critical aspect of the brainís emotional wiring, for example, is how adults respond to the child.

"Itís not just responding to their cries and their physical needs, but also when a baby is expressing, ĎI want you to interact with me,í" she says. When a baby is smiling, waving his arms and kicking his legs, heís saying, "Arenít I cute? Donít you want to play with me?"

During her frequent presentations on brain development for parents, educators, medical professionals, social workers and policy makers, McNelis points out that the brain adapts itself to repeated experiences, whether they are negative or positive.

Optimal brain development "isnít all that complicated," McNelis says. "Itís positive interaction with the adults in the childís life and with real objects, using all of the senses. Thatís the way the brain is going to develop best."

McNelis says she came up with her braininsights series to translate early childhood brain research into practical methods for parents to help their children grow. Working with graphic designer Nate Van Dyke, she created 40-card packets with ideas and activities. There is a specific packet for each of the childís first five years.

The cards, which are easily tucked into a purse or diaper bag, are written from the childís perspective. Each card includes a brief, easy-to-read description of the scientific basis for the activity, such as this one from the "Love Your Baby" packet for children aged birth to 1.

Activity: Jack in the Box. Push a stuffed animal into a plastic container or oatmeal box. Put the cover on. Sing a short song and open the lid when the song is over. Make a fun expression. Do it again. I will learn to expect the animal to pop out when the song is over.

Brain: Because of interactions with you, by the time I am 6 months, I may have already developed one-thousand-trillion new connections in my brain.

The cards also suggest simple interactions between parent and child that can be done without any supplies. A Spanish version will be introduced soon.

"You can do these activities while doing the laundry, driving the car or waiting for an appointment," McNelis says.

McNelis is something of a crusader in educating parents and other adults who have frequent contact with children on the importance of early brain development. She regularly posts brain facts on her website,, and visitors to the site can sign up for her free e-newsletter featuring brain facts and tips.

Although some DVDs aimed at speeding the development of young children tempt parents to raise "superkids," McNelis says what children really need is hands-on, interactive learning and time to discover the world around them. Her next braininsights series will focus on playing outside "and how beneficial that is to the brain."