November 2011
4-H Extension Corner

4-H Ages and Stages: Blame it on Our Brains

By the time they have reached elementary school, these Blount County Cloverbuds have acquired many of the social and intellectual skills to help them succeed in life.


Part 1

You have probably seen it: one day that sweet and loving pre-teen suddenly turns into a character from The Exorcist. But, thank goodness, they just as quickly become their agreeable selves again. Or maybe not so quickly….

Welcome to the world of youth development! For those of us who are parents, teachers or 4-H staff or volunteers, dealing with young people can seem like a constantly-shifting landscape, where the rules and the language are always changing. Well, you can blame it on our continuously-changing brains, which will keep wiring and rewiring connections throughout our lives.

It’s no secret that the brain of a seven-year-old is different from the brain of a sixteen-year-old, but new technology and research are helping us more fully understand the changes in the brain taking place from the womb to the grave. And that research is having a powerful impact on how 4-H meets the needs of young people.


From birth onward, children need to have their intellectual curiosity stimulated. What does this snail tell us about how clean the water is? What does this snail eat – and what animals eat snails? A caring, committed adult helps children and themselves learn to ask questions.

By the time they become Cloverbuds, at age five, a good bit of a child’s destiny has already been determined. Even in the womb, the placenta – and the mother’s diet and environment — provide developing brains with serotonin, a brain chemical having an impact on future mental health, as well as future heart disease and diabetes.

During the first three years, there is a torrent of development taking place in a little one’s brain. Any observant parent or grandparent proudly notes the subtleties of that progress: the way the baby’s fingers move toward objects or how the infant first mimics sounds and expressions. It’s not automatic for all babies to learn at an equal pace. Research shows the importance of the nutritional, medical, emotional and intellectual support given by parents, family and the community during that development.

In 4-H, we often say one of the most important things we can do for young people is to provide experiences they would not otherwise have. Those stimulating experiences have a special impact on early brain development. The baby alone in a crib or parked in front of a television will not learn like one who is constantly engaged with other people. Research shows even the interpersonal and nutritional aspects of breastfeeding raise IQ by 5.2 points along with increasing the odds of educational achievement and social adjustment.

Throughout childhood, the involvement of “caring, committed” adults will make a difference in emotional and intellectual development.


During early childhood, parents – "the first and best teachers" – play a crucial role in brain development. Remember that stage when a child asks "Why?" about everything? They really are not doing it to be annoying; it’s a cool trick they have learned to involve adults in conversation, to get you to talk with them. "Because I said so!" – a response every tired parent has tried — is an answer that shuts down the opportunity for engagement.

So, what does the research teach us about helping our kids’ brains develop?

During Pregnancy

Healthy moms increase the odds of a physically and intellectually-healthy baby. That includes nutrition, rest and exercise, no alcohol or cigarettes — obviously, but extra protein, carbohydrates, fats, vitamins and minerals – based on your doctor’s recommendations. Even maternal stress has an impact on baby’s development.


4-H recognizes the importance of providing children with new experiences. For many Alabama kids, that can be something as simple – but wonderful – as wading barefoot in a creek.

During Infancy

Baby’s brains are sponges, soaking up colors, shapes and words. They benefit from human interactions, touch, sights and sounds. The need for regular schedules, sleep and good nutrition goes without saying.

Research suggests they can also be overwhelmed by excessive stimulation. The American Academy of Pediatrics discourages all TV or video viewing during the first two years. Young children who watch TV for more than two hours a day are six times more likely to have delayed language skills and have attention problems.

In Early Childhood

Children who receive sensitive, responsive care from their parents and other caregivers in the first years of life enjoy an important head start toward success in their lives. Children who have someone who talks with them and reads to them are far more likely to thrive. Children who are ignored or emotionally or physically abused have an especially difficult time surmounting those obstacles.

Chuck Hill is the 4-H Youth Development Specialist.