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Thursday, May 22, 2003 02:20 pm

Baby boosters

Early learning has become a multimillion-dollar business offering videos, CDs, high-tech toys, and classes. Yet the most important lessons are still best taught the old-fashioned way.

Jim Edwards

My wife and I have a son who's 20 months old. We also have an unsettling book called What to Expect: The Toddler Years. In it, we learn, month-by-month, what our boy should be able to do.

The book advises that at 20 months Luke "should be able to" run and use a spoon or fork. He "may possibly be able to" combine words, name six body parts, throw a ball overhand, and speak more than 50 words. "He may even be able to" identify four pictures and build a tower of six blocks.

We've learned to allow some breathing room, because Luke was born prematurely. He uses a spoon and fork, and he can even pick up two forks with one hand. His running and body-part naming aren't quite there yet, and he's not yet up to 50 understandable words. Yet he can easily identify four pictures and is quite the stacker--he's gone way beyond blocks to balancing towers of upside-down bowls, glasses, and spice bottles.

Interest in childhood development jumped in the early 1990s when researchers at the University of California at Irvine showed that college students temporarily improved their spatial-reasoning skills after listening to 15 minutes of Mozart. At least one of the researchers went on to lead similarly successful experiments on rats. All of these studies have since been questioned by many researchers who have not been able to repeat the results. But this hasn't mattered. The press highly exaggerated the findings, reducing the studies to simply, "Mozart makes you smarter!"

Taking advantage of the buzz was Don Campbell, a Colorado musician and businessman completely unassociated with the Mozart research. Campbell copyrighted the phrase "The Mozart Effect," slapping it on a line of tapes, CDs, and books on how to awaken a baby's brain. The CD The Mozart Effect: Music for Babies Playtime to Sleeptime has easily outsold CDs of U2's Joshua Tree on Amazon.com. The Mozart Effect claims that the composer's music stimulates the developing brain and improves its ability to process abstract and numerical concepts. Just listening to it is supposed to make babies smarter and more creative.

Campbell's exploitation of some questionable academic studies has not only improved Amazon.com's bottom line--it's found its way into public policy. A few years ago, the Florida legislature required all state-funded child-care programs to play classical music to children every day. Across the country hospitals now give new moms Mozart CDs--often purchased with the help of tax dollars.

There's no harm in infants and toddlers listening to Mozart, of course, and there will always be those selling a magic formula for an easy life. But child development is too important to our national interest to be reduced to these facile strategies for building Super Babies. Early learning initiatives are one of the best ways to tackle poverty and close the achievement gap between races and economic classes. To that end, the U.S. Government spent more than $6 billion last year on Head Start, the early intervention program that serves nearly a million at-risk children. Voters have also started to see the light. In 2000, a statewide poll asked where Illinois' public funds should be spent to improve learning experiences. Nearly half of the respondents said elementary schooling and a third said programs for children from birth to age five. A year later, 45 percent said programs for children from birth to age five should be the highest priority. "From the time of conception to the first day of kindergarten, development proceeds at a pace exceeding that of any subsequent stage of life," says a 2000 report by the National Research Council and Institute of Medicine.

Chicago-based Voices for Illinois Children uses such information to push for more early learning initiatives throughout the state. VIC points to study after study claiming dramatic improvements for children who take part in programs before kindergarten. They tend to get less involved with drugs and crime than their peers who receive no early education.

Someone who's taking child development more seriously than Florida legislators is Illinois State Senator Don Harmon, a Democrat from Oak Park. He and his wife, Teresa, have two children under three. The Harmons both graduated from the University of Chicago Law School and are active in their community. "We're blessed with a great many resources," says Harmon.

Still, when it came time for the Harmons to select educational programs for their children, they were at a loss. "I had no idea how many opportunities were available to us and our kids," Harmon says. He figured they weren't alone, and he decided to do something about it on a statewide level. Working with Voices for Illinois Children, Harmon sponsored a bill to create an Illinois Early Learning Council.

If formed, the council would sift through early learning programs targeting children from birth to age five and offer suggestions for improvement and outreach. The council would need no funding, at least according to the legislation. Harmon's bill sailed through the House and Senate this session and awaits the governor's signature.

A new law, though, won't do much for the children who need early intervention the most. "Parental involvement is key," says Harmon. "And it's the hardest thing to legislate."


Do you remember the muffin man or Michael Finnigan, whose whiskers the wind blew "inagin"? These songs can enrich a child's life forever, so says Lianne Brewer of Springfield. Brewer heads the Music Factory, which teaches music appreciation and skills to children from infancy to age nine. Located in an old storefront at 1153 W. Governor, Music Factory isn't cheap. Classes--she had 24 this "semester"--and mandatory materials can cost more than $100, though Brewer does offer discounts and scholarships. A few parents don't pay anything at all, she says.

"I'd like to try and reach more low-income families," Brewer says. "I've given presentations in low-income areas. There's just not enough follow through and I don't know how to pursue it."

One Thursday morning, Brewer held two classes: one for babies, one for toddlers. The content was much the same: mothers and children singing, clapping, dancing to familiar songs. If the children weren't actively participating, the mothers were moving their arms and feet for them. The children also used scarves, sticks, and other tools. "Most of the babies take their sticks and chew on them, but that's OK," says Brewer. Parents are expected to practice songs at home because each class builds on the previous one.

Brewer, 50, has been running Music Factory for nine years. Before that, she gave children's music lessons. She has a bachelor's degree in music from California State University at Los Angeles. Her husband, Greg, has a PhD in neurology and teaches at the Southern Illinois University School of Medicine.

Brewer and the few teachers she employs are all certified by the Musik Garten, a Toronto-based early childhood education company founded in 1994. According to Musik Garten's Web site (www.musikgarten.org), music develops "the artistic nature of children and nurture[s] their social skills by improving self-confidence, abstract thinking, the art of voluntary thinking, and stimulating creativity." It sounds a lot like language found on Dan Campbell's Web site. But Brewer, while not entirely disavowing the Mozart Effect, draws a distinction between it and what she's offering.

"When a child is just listening, or watching Sesame Street on TV for that matter, they're not fully engaged," Brewer says. "Music Factory is much more active and engages a child emotionally, physically, and mentally. They're doing it, they're involved." Parents are involved as much as the children.

Up until last semester, Brewer handed out evaluations to parents that recorded whether a child had mastered the material or still "needed some work." The grade was supposed to encourage some parents to take the classes a little more seriously. But a few parents, she says, were so upset with the practice she stopped it.

During each 30-minute class, Brewer sometimes stops to explain to parents, usually mothers, why certain tones and rhythms appear to be cross-cultural or how children who are involved in music often do better in math than those who are not (studies show that students involved in theater programs do even better). She often shares music and childhood development articles that she comes across or that her husband brings home. Despite efforts to teach music and creative thinking early, public school budget cuts usually hit these programs first. Yet the evidence suggests that students involved in music and extracurricular classes are the very ones who are pulling up the averages.


The Music Factory wouldn't be effective at all if, of course, parents didn't bring their children. Studying thousands of children in the late 1990s, researchers at the University of Michigan arrived at an obvious conclusion: kids whose parents spend more time with them tend to do better in school. These parents generally have warmer relationships with their children, and they have higher expectations too, encouraging the children to read. Faring particular well were children with at-home mothers and parents who were highly educated. For homes in which both parents work, researches provided encouraging news too: quality time mattered more than the amount of time spent with children. In short, model parents help raise model children.

Also good news: income and race, by themselves, make less difference to a child's development than other factors, such as his number of friends or the amount of time he devotes to watching television. Unfortunately, by the age of three the average child is already watching 13.2 hours of television a week. According to a grading system designed to measure aptitude and well-being, by the age of 12 this average child will be significantly behind a child who watches little television.

Not surprisingly, a stable environment is important too. Children who change schools two or more times a year are more than 300 percent more likely to develop behavioral problems than a child who stays at the same school year after year. For Springfield's School District 186--which sees one out of every four students changing schools per year--the consequences of an unstable home are alarming. Long story short: quite a few children lack model parents.

In Springfield, the Urban League offers Head Start and District 186 has an early childhood development program based at Dodds School for pre-kindergarten children only. A Parents as Teachers program funded by the Illinois State Board of Education is also headquartered at Dodds; it provides parents with advice on childhood development, books, and free classes (with free day care). Dodds sponsors free "drop-in" classes where pre-kindergarten parents and their children work on crafts and play games. The only condition is that the parents live within District 186 along with their children. Other organizations--Fun Shop, Parent Place, local hospitals, and many churches--also offer resources for parents of young children.

Like Music Factory, District 186's Parents as Teachers and other early child learning programs depend somewhat on word-of-mouth. There are newsletters and brochures, but not always a lot of advertising. The programs are popular enough. The district's prechool program usually has a waiting list dozens of children long, according to Nancy Moore, early childhood coordinator for 186.

Parents as Teachers, Music Factory, and other programs are used by those in the know. Early childhood development programs depend on parents actively seeking positive, engaging experiences for their children. My wife heard about the Music Factory from a friend at a "mommy group," which originated through a Memorial Medical Center program for parents of newborns and has taken on a life of its own. Through Memorial, we were also connected to baby sign langauge classes.

At one Music Factory class, I met Fumika Brudnak and her two-year-old son, Ken. Fumika's part of that same mommy group, which is where she learned about the music program too. In many ways, Ken is a typical toddler. He whines a little and can make a big mess when he eats. But he's also fed a very healthy diet of American and Japanese food, can speak English and Japanese, and can recognize and count numbers in both languages. Fumika's husband, Mark, is an international marketing specialist at Levi, Ray and Shoup. He says they don't keep track of the number of words Ken knows anymore because they've lost count. "It seems a little obsessive to keep track," he says. Fumika doesn't keep candy around the house. Whenever she's in the car with Ken, she plays music, switching between Music Factory songs and Japanese folk music. She takes Ken to the Music Factory because she comes from a "big musical family" and wanted him to "know and enjoy music." Before bed, Mark and Fumika read to Ken: 15 minutes in Japanese, 15 minutes in English.

They seem to be doing everything right. When I asked them about the Mozart Effect, neither of them had ever heard of it.

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