Environmental Enrichment: What is it and why is it important?

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Disclaimer: The opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors. They do not not reflect the opinions or views of Ovia Health.

You may already have heard of neuroplasticity, but as a parent, would you like to know how to translate that concept into everyday routines that will stimulate your baby’s brain development? If so, keep reading!

The notion that the brain can change – referred to as neuroplasticity – is a relatively recent discovery in the realm of medicine. It was initially put forth in the scientific literature in the 1970’s, and in the decades since we have come to discover just how remarkably flexible the brain is. It does not simply have the capacity to grow or change; it is in fact always changing, dynamically shaped by a person’s everyday experiences and interactions with the external environment. With each new interaction, observation, or emotional spark, neuronal connections grow. And, in the absence of stimulation, neuronal connections weaken, and overtime are pruned away.

The fact that our brain is malleable means that we can take steps in our everyday life to measurably impact how it functions. While science has shown that this is true throughout life, we know that the brain is particularly plastic in early development, from ages 0 to 5 years. From the time between conception to birth, the brain develops from just a few cells to a hundred billion neurons. And, then, within the first four to five years of life it nearly doubles in size. During this early developmental period, foundational neuronal networks are shaped, which will serve children for the years and decades ahead.

Parents and caregivers are uniquely positioned to help strengthen important neural pathways and deepen the connections between networks for their child. This can be done through simple, everyday interactions and activities, which are encompassed by the idea of environmental enrichment. Environmental enrichment is the process of changing the environment in order to optimally stimulate the brain. While this construct has been discussed in the research literature for decades, it has not yet made its way to the masses despite the potential benefit it can have for children.

Environmental enrichment is an accessible and impactful way to support children’s brain development. You can enrich the environment by providing different sensory stimuli – think about scents, textures, artwork, music, conversation – for your child to perceive and different physical exercises – think about reaching, stretching, hopping, dancing – in which your child can engage.

The aim is to help your child experience novel stimuli or novel circumstances, that will get their body and brain moving. This can include everything from exposing your newborn to gentle textures or massage, to talking with your little one about things they see in the environment, to challenging your child to grasp an object that is out of reach, to stacking asymmetrical objects, to engaging in novel conversations once your baby is talking, among many other possibilities.

You do not need to follow a specific protocol or purchase specific materials. Rather, the goal is to utilize what you already have in your everyday environment and engage your child in cognitive and sensory play, perhaps one step beyond what you would normally do. Through this approach, you might not realize it, but you are enriching your child’s everyday life and helping to create and strengthen connections in the brain.

At healthynest, we have developed a series of activities designed to help parents enrich their child’s everyday experience. healthynest Developmental Activities were designed with your child’s developmental stage in mind, and inspire parents to use materials already in hand, during a moment that already exists—during diapering, play, mealtime, or bath time—to deepen connections and build a healthy foundation for their children. In other words, universal routines are enhanced through a series of exercises, which are also backed by science so you know you are doing everything you can to support your baby’s well being from the very beginning. We hope to empower parents with a method for environmental enrichment that can be adapted to suit each baby’s unique needs.

Through the process of environmental enrichment, we begin to see that the distinction between brain health and the environment is really quite seamless. It is clear that the environment can influence the brain, which is the short-term benefit of enrichment. But it is also important to recognize that the events that take place in our brain – the electrical impulses and neurochemical cascades – influence how we behave, how we perceive, how we experience our environment, and ultimately, what is possible for us as we grow. In this way, our brain health also shapes the environment in which we live and thrive. Overtime, we can see a snowball effect, such that positive environmental exposures can lead to neuronal growth and benefit overall wellbeing, and these new neural connections and pathways create space for us to perceive and experience new events externally. There is limitless potential for our children to broaden and build our lives, creating deep connections and rich experiences if we, as parents, take small steps to enrich their lives from the beginning.

Looking for environmental enrichment exercises for your little one? Check out the healthynest library for activities for every age and stage:

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  • J. Réflexions sur l’usage du concept de plasticité en neurobiology. J Psychol 1976;1:33-47
  • Oberman L, Pascual-Leone A. Changes in plasticity across the lifespan: cause of disease and target for intervention. Prog Brain Res. 2013;207:91–120. doi:10.1016/B978-0-444-63327-9.00016-3
  • Diamond, Marian. (2001). Response of the brain to enrichment. Anais da Academia Brasileira de Ciências. 73. 211-20. 10.1590/S0001-37652001000200006.
  • Environmental Enrichment and Neuronal Plasticity. Gregory D. Clemenson, Fred H. Gage, and Craig E.L. Stark. The Oxford Handbook of Developmental Neural Plasticity. Edited by Moses V. Chao
  • Magic Trees of the Mind: How to Nurture Your Child’s Intelligence, Creativity, and Healthy Emotions from Birth Through Adolescence by Marian Diamond and Janet Hopson
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