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Need help developing the brain of a toddler or infant? There's an app for that
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Nonprofit Vroom app brings cutting edge brain development insights to parents in digestible form. - photo by Eric Schulzke
Know a parent who needs help developing the brain of an infant or toddler? Theres a free app for that. Its called Vroom, and its the brainchild of a team of scientists working with the Bezos Family Foundation, founded by Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos.

Vroom is more than just a piece of software. The app is part of a larger Vroom effort to offer parents simple ideas to make better use of their time with their child.

Its all part of broader effort to "turn everyday moments into brain building moments," says Megan Wyatt, managing director for strategy and programs at the Bezos Family Foundation. And its based on cutting-edge science about how rapidly brains develop during the first few years of life and how much hinges on getting it right.

"Our goal is to help parents understand how much is happening in their child's brain," Wyatt said, "and create a culture shift about what parenting means in those critical first years."

The science

The key insight surfacing in brain development in recent years is how early and fast brain development begins. The emerging consensus is that preschool is too late.

The seminal contribution in this rapidly developing field was authored in 2003 by Betty Hart and Todd Risley at the University of Kansas, who found that children raised in poverty were exposed to far less verbal interaction, and that the impact of this gap by the age of 3 accounted for enormous lost cognitive potential.

The Deseret News National recently highlighted the work of Dana Suskind, a pediatric surgeon at the University of Chicago who does cochlear implants restoring hearing. Suskind had discovered in her own work that toddlers whose hearing was restored developed strong language skills, while others did not. Like Hart and Risley, she traced the difference to verbal interaction in the home and went on to found the Thirty Million Words Initiative. TMW has boiled its message to parents down to three simple concepts: tune in, talk more and take turns.

Vroom steps into this emerging space with a plan for a surround sound of messaging that helps parents close that gap within the context of their busy lives.

"Vroom takes cutting-edge science and asks how it can provide tidbits for parents. I call it edible science, because it's accessible, digestible and usable," said Kathy Hirsh-Pasek, a developmental psychologist at Temple University, who serves on the Vroom scientific advisory board.

"It's a dance between the parent and the child," Hirsh-Pasek said.

How it works

Vroom is both a comprehensive outreach program and a mobile app. The parent materials are available for free online and in booklet form, and the app itself is free, but the Vroom team aims to get its message out on a multitude of platforms.

Vroom is, for example, working with major manufacturers of consumer packaged goods. The plan is to put brain-building tips on the packaging of child-oriented consumer products, such as diapers or food items. Some major breakthroughs on this front will be announced shortly, Wyatt said.

The Vroom team emphasizes instilling confidence and ease in parents. An online video ad shows trucks delivering Vroom branded boxes to parents. When they open the box, they see a mirror and the words, "You already have all it takes."

Much like Suskind's TMW, Vroom has reduced its approach to five basic tactics. The first is to look, which means keeping eye contact with the child. The second is to chat about everything going on around you, including sounds and sights and events. Third is to follow the childs lead, watching for reactions and building on them, even before the child can talk. Fourth is to stretch the interaction by asking more questions, and the final tactic is to take turns, which means interactions should be balanced conversational duets, not monologues.

The Vroom phone app now has about 1,000 tips in its database. They are brief, just 250 to 300 characters, and accessible at a third- to fifth-grade reading level. As with most gamified apps, parents who complete objectives get badges.

"Do you and Paula have a daily challenge like getting ready for school?" your phone asks you one morning. "Have her practice that challenge during playtime. You can say, 'let's pretend for getting ready to go to school. What should we do first?' Talk about the steps if he needs help remembering. 'We eat our breakfast, pack your lunch, brush your teeth, and then get on the bus.

Scroll down and your phone explains: "When children have the chance to practice, they begin to feel a sense of control in challenging situations. Paula is practicing critical thinking and problem-solving skills as she breaks the task down into steps and applies what she already knows to solve it."

Every tip comes with a simple explanation like this, offering the "why" of brain science that helps parents understand the "what" of the suggested interaction.

Learning to wait

Vroom reaches beyond language development to social, emotional and "executive function" skills. That last category includes memory, reasoning, flexibility, planning and problem solving. Children who learn how to learn are the most likely to thrive," Ellen Galinsky, president and co-founder of Families and Work Institute, said.

A leading author on early brain development, Galinsky has been a key player with Vroom from the outset, helping to coordinate and translate the science. "Children who learn how to learn are the most likley to thrive," Galinsky said.

One skill Vroom helps parents teach kids is delaying gratification. In the 1960s, a famous study by Walter Mischel, then a psychologist at Stanford, offered children one marshmallow on a plate with a second promised if they could wait 15 minutes alone in a room without eating the first. Tracking the children through the years, the study found the ability to wait to be a powerful predictor of later success.

When people hear about this study, Galinsky said, most think the difference must be inborn. But in fact, she says, those skills can be learned, and the tactics of successful children can be taught. Vroom helps parents turn waiting skills into a game.

Some Vroom suggestions indirectly target the waiting skill set, not by directly focusing on waiting but by helping kids turn off their auto pilot and think more consciously about things. Galinsky cites a 2011 study that found that games like "Freeze" and "Red Light/Green Light" can improve self-regulation in schoolchildren.

Not standing still

Working with its cadre of advisory scientists, Vroom is constantly refining and expanding its coaching materials.

In one study of 60 low-income families, published this summer, Hirsh-Pasek and her colleagues compared high performing, struggling and mid-range low-income toddlers to see what made the high performers transcend their socio-economic barriers.

The researchers coded three key variables to measure the quality of the interactions. How much did the parent and child use language or symbolic gestures to communicate? How much did they use routines and rituals together? And how fluid and cohesive were their interactions?

Those three factors together, which the researchers refer to as the "conversational duet," had an enormous impact on the language development of the toddlers, they reported in an article published this summer in the journal "Psychological Science."

To make sure that quality interaction was the key factor, they controlled it against both the number of words spoken and "sensitive parenting" or "warm, responsive and attentive engagement."

They found that the volume of words spoken and sensitive parenting are both "indisputably important." But both of these had a much smaller impact than the quality of the interactions.

In short, Hirsh-Pasek said, they were able to predict by observing parenting at age 2 whether a child would be advanced or delayed in language at age 3.

That single insight is now echoing from a wide variety of angles from brain imaging research to the clinical experience of pediatric surgeons to observational parenting studies. Focused adult interaction in the first three years is critical to a child's development, and preschool, only recently hailed as a near panacea, may itself be too little too late.