From Blobs to Beings: An Overview of Research on Baby Brains


Over the last hundred years there has been a monumental shift in how the scientific community sees babies. Neuroscientists and clinical psychologists now deem young children worthy of study and through their studies we have gained a wealth of information about brain development. This shift from seeing babies as blobs, to babies as beings undergoing a crucial stage of development, has been slower outside the fields of science and academy.This is unfortunate because every day people have the opportunity to interact with babies and are able to observe firsthand how babies grow and develop. These observations can result in an appreciation for the importance of enriching early childhood experiences.

What follows is an overview of brain research. It starts by discussing some overarching theories and moves into a breakdown of some of the newest findings. Hopefully this body of work will inspire you to take a new look at babies and discover that they are fascinating beings.

Ted Talks offers a series of five videos in a playlist called “Genius of Babies”. Alison Gopnik, a developmental psychologist and author of The Scientist in the Crib: What Early Learning Tells Us About the Mind, The Philosophical Baby: What Children’s Minds Tell Us About Truth, Love, and the Meaning of Life, and The Gardener and the Carpenter: What the New Science of Child Development Tells Us About the Relationship Between Parents and Children, is one of the speakers highlighted. During her Ted Talk, titled “What Do Babies Think?”, she makes the argument that babies are born as scientists who actively conduct experiments to learn about the world around them.


Cognitive brain scientist, Laura Shultz explains “The surprisingly logical minds of babies”. Shultz notes that babies’ brains have to be very powerful because “they are figuring out their entire world.” She concludes her Ted Talk by saying:

In the years to come, we’re going to see technological innovations beyond anything I can even envision, but we are very unlikely to see anything even approximating the computational power of a human child in my lifetime or in yours. If we invest in these most powerful learners and their development, in babies and children and mothers and fathers and caregivers and teachers the way we invest in our other most powerful and elegant forms of technology, engineering and design, we will not just be dreaming of a better future, we will be planning for one.

Researchers have noted the importance of babies’ exposure to both language and stimulation. Dana Suskind, a surgeon who routinely performed cochlear implants, wrote the book Thirty Million Words: Building A Child’s Brain. Suskind begins with the premise made famous by Betty Hart and Todd Risley’s paper “The Early Catastrophe”, which was published in the early 2000s and describes the thirty million word gap. Children in lower socioeconomic backgrounds have heard thirty million less words than their peers from high socioeconomic backgrounds by age three. According to Suskind, some children thrived after receiving a cochlear implant, while others did not and she discovered that the children who thrived heard millions and millions more words. In addition to regularly hearing words, a new study from the Norwegian University of Science and Technology “Babies Exposed to Stimulation Get a Brain Boost”. The study highlights the importance of actively challenging young children as well as stimulating their senses.


Another recent baby brain study to note is from the University of Miami about how “Mothers and infants connect through song”. The study noted the mother’s ability to change the pitch or the tempo to keep the infant engaged in the song. Another interesting study looked at how babies’ sight develops. According to the study from the University of Oslo, babies who are 2 to 3 days old can see emotions on a human face from a distance of 30 cm, but at 60 cm the faces become too blurry to detect any facial details.

There should be plenty more interesting neuroscience studies in the future. In fact, the researches from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology have adapted MRI machines to make them more baby-friendly by making the MRI seat more like a car seat so the baby is more comfortable. The newly adapted MRI machines also have a mirror that allows the baby to watch videos and provides a space for the parent or researcher to sit next to the baby while the baby is getting an MRI. These adaptations have allowed researchers to discover more about how babies’ brains work. It has led to findings that the same part of a baby’s brain responds to images of faces as in an adult’s brain, which has allowed researchers to conclude that babies’ brains and adult brains are more similar than previously thought.  

As an educator, this wealth of information on how babies’ brains develop has impacted my practice. Research tells us that babies and young children need to be exposed to variety of subjects, materials, and situations. One wonderful way to expose babies and young children to new environments is to take them to museums and to explore the collections and watch their brains make connections and grow. Scientific research has shown the importance of exposure in early childhood and I am hopeful that one day this knowledge will permeate even into our everyday thinking.

Growing Educators SEEC Style

Last week, I had the good fortune to attend the South By Southwest Education (SXSWedu) conference in Austin, TX. Professional meetings are an important opportunity to connect with other like-minded educators that care deeply about making an impact and SXSWedu is no exception. It brings together a unique mix of educators, entrepreneurs, technology nerds, and cutting edge innovative thinkers. It creates a space for sharing ideas and reflecting together about the importance of our daily work.

Sharing Perspectives

This year’s conference was extra meaningful, though, as several colleagues from the Smithsonian presented information about early learning across the Institution. To start, SEEC educator Brooke Shoemaker moderated a panel session titled, “Out of the Box: Early Learning in the Community.” Her panelists represented a variety of perspectives about how to use the community as a teaching resource. Colleague Emily Porter from the Friends of the National Zoo reminded participants of the importance of outdoor play. SEEC institutional member Jennifer Hornby from the Memphis Public Library provided up to date information about the value of young children having access to public libraries. And, SEEC educator Will Kuehnle presented examples of how to use the broader community for meaningful learning experiences. For example, when his class became interested in tunnel boring machines, they learned about the Lady Bird TBM, which was excavating a 13 mile sewer drain under Washington DC into the Potomac River to reduce river pollution. They ventured to the Potomac River to see drains and how they feed into the river, and even noticed trash in the river that the drain would hopefully eliminate. Of course, Brooke reminded participants that museums can be important resources.

Collaborative Results

For the past 10 months, I have watched Brooke lead this team in the development of this presentation. To see the process come full circle has been rewarding as she expands her own professional expertise and supports her colleagues. In addition, the positive response from the audience served as an indicator that early childhood educators are excited about the possibility of moving beyond their classrooms and into the community to support their students’ development.

Playful Interactions

In addition, the Smithsonian Early Learning Collaborative was well represented at the SXSWedu Playground. Coordinated by SEEC’s Cynthia Raso, Smithsonian educators came together to create engaging and eye catching learning stations for SXSWedu participants to enjoy. Colleagues from National Museum of American History featured the California Raisin characters in an activity designed to connect children to history and advertising. The Friends of the National Zoo enticed Playground visitors with beautiful natural materials to encourage empathy that leads to interest and and investment in conservation.

And, the Smithsonian Early Enrichment Center engaged visitors with the art work of Nick Cage and his sound suits, frequently visited by SEEC students at the Hirshhorn. In addition to being just plain FUN, the experience gave SI EL Collab members a chance to connect and bond in ways that we have not been able to in the past.

Adapting on the Fly

Finally, Carrie Heflin from the National Museum of American History developed a session on history museums, Wegmans Wonderplace and early childhood education. Presenting is always a nerve-racking experience but to have a last minute change in venues can be downright unsettling. Due to a site location planner mix-up, in a matter of minutes, Carrie seamlessly shifted her format from a traditional “front of room” presentation to a hands-on interactive experience. Only slightly ruffled, Carrie pulled it off without anyone ever knowing there was a change. Amazing.

Caring and Connecting

It was inspiring to watch each of these skilled young professionals take ownership of their own learning. Given these examples, it is clear that continuous professional growth is part of the Smithsonian early childhood educator’s DNA. Each member of the team went above and beyond to leave SXSWedu attendees with a positive impression of the Smithsonian Institution. Professionalism aside, though, the real highlight of the week was hanging out together over pizza and beer on Austin’s charming little Rainey Street!



Smithsonian Early Explorers Bilingual

¡Hola, museo! Hello, museum! Join us this spring to discover the bilingual toddler program offered by the Smithsonian Early Enrichment Center. Designed for toddlers aged 18 to 36 months with their caregivers, Smithsonian Early Explorers Bilingual offers enriching classroom activities and exhibit experiences both in the museums on the Mall and at the Zoo. It’s an ideal program for families who primarily speak Spanish or who are seeking Spanish language enrichment. For 20% off tuition, use the code SEEB20 and register by Friday, March 17. Spring session begins on Monday, April 3. For more information, please visit our website: or contact Maureen Leary at (se habla español).


Hello, museum! ¡Hola, museo! Únase a nosotros esta primavera para descubrir el programa bilingüe de niños ofrecido por el Smithsonian Early Enrichment Center. Diseñado para niños de entre 18 y 36 meses de edad con sus cuidadores, Los  Exploradores Jóvenes del Smithsonian Bilingüe ofrece actividades enriquecedoras en el el salón de clases y experiencias de exhibición tanto en los museos del Mall y en el Zoológico. Es un programa ideal para familias que principalmente hablan español o que buscan enriquecimiento en español. Para el 20% de descuento en la matrícula, use el código SEEB20 y regístrese antes el viernes, 17 de marzo. La sesión de primavera comienza el lunes, 3 de abril. Para obtener más información, visite nuestro sitio web: o contacte a Maureen Leary en (se habla español).




Making Every Child Matter

For the past few years, SEEC has been offering our Positive Sense of Self workshop, but now, more than ever, we see this work as not just important, but necessary. Politics aside, there is no denying that we have a population of young learners who are diverse and, in order to support them and their academic success we need to help educators learn how to create a supportive and inclusive learning environment.

3Why the early years?

The importance of a child’s early years has become widely accepted. Educators and, more and more, policy makers recognize that providing families with affordable, high quality early education can have profound and lasting impacts on a child’s academic success and overall well-being. Quality early education can mean a lot of things to a lot of people, but one essential component is social emotional learning. The work of early learning professionals today includes helping children communicate their feelings, work successfully as a group, and try to understand and respect others. Embedded in these concepts, is the idea that children should see a variety of perspectives represented – those reflecting their own identity and the identities of others. The Smithsonian is in a unique position to use our objects and resources to support teachers in their own understanding and educational practices about race and culture.

Race and Culture1

Research has proven that even very young children recognize physical and cultural differences and often display their own biases towards these differences. SEEC, and its partners, would posit that it is better to address these factors rather than ignore them. The truth is, young children do notice differences in skin color, clothing, and speech. Celebrating our differences can help children have a broader world view and instill pride in what makes them and their communities unique. At the same time, displaying our commonalities can demonstrate to young children how much we share.

Positive Sense of Self

This workshop that SEEC, the National Museum of African American History and Culture, and the National Museum of the American Indian, hosts will aim to help educators support a positive sense of self in ALL of their students. We know that children benefit by seeing themselves represented throughout their educational experience; through books, objects, art, play, and content educators can create an environment that honors all children.

We will begin our first day by recognizing our own bias in a safe environment and use this understanding of ourselves to help us become better educators. We will also examine the role stereotypes play in education and how, as educators, we can look past those stereotypes and use museums, their objects and resources, to create a more diverse classroom.

2The second day of the workshop will feature several techniques for supporting children in their understanding of the themselves and the world. We will examine how to use objects (both every day and museum objects) to teach and, identify developmentally appropriate ways to talk about race and culture in the classroom. Participants will create collections that encourage children to embrace differences and acknowledge our shared humanity. We will also work in NMAAHC’s art galleries to model how looking and thinking routines can encourage young children to stop, look, think, and inquire. In this section, we will help educators respond to potentially awkward questions and remarks and support the notion that we don’t have to have all the answers – even if we are teachers.  We will conclude the day by examining some common pitfalls used in preschool settings and provide participants with a chance to curate a learning environment using the techniques and resources that we explored during the workshop.


We hope you can join us in this important work.



SEEC’s Oscars

2-2In keeping with the awards season time of year, SEEC held its annual Staff Appreciation dinner recently in order to recognize the hard work and dedication of our entire team. It was also a great opportunity to kick back, relax, and enjoy some time together.

During the course of the evening, we honored six individuals who have really stood out.

Without further ado, the winners are….

Diane Homiak Award

The Diane Homiak Award is a lasting tribute to the memory of SEEC supporter, parent, and employee Diane Homiak. A fund has been established that annually recognizes the commitment, creativity, and contributions made by a teacher to SEEC.sign-me-up

Melinda Bernsdorf, teacher in one of our two-year-old classes, was the 2017 recipient. With numerous nominations from parents, teammates, and colleagues, Melinda was singled out for fostering a creative and inspiring learning environment, her ability to build independence and inquisitiveness in her children, her willingness to share ideas, and the remarkable warmth she brings to everything she does.  Melinda has been at SEEC since 2014 and holds a Bachelors in Psychology. She has a long history of working with children and says she loves how each child has their own individual way of exploring their world.

Rookie of the Year1

First year toddler teacher Elizabeth Kubba was celebrated as this year’s Rookie of the Year!  She, too, was recognized for her creativity in the classroom, her dedication to her children, and her level of communication. As an undergrad, she realized that educating and developing young people was her true passion so she went on to earn her M.Ed. in School Counseling from Liberty University. She has been working in special education at the elementary level for the past three years.

Spirit of SEEC1-3

Brooke Shoemaker was celebrated with the Spirit of SEEC Award.  This award isn’t given out every year – it’s only awarded when an educator who reaches across the entire school really stands out, and Brooke truly fits that bill!  She was recognized for her work supporting teachers in all three of SEEC’s sites, her ability to connect with everyone (big and little), and her outstanding work within the Center for Innovation in Early Learning. Brooke serves as the Education Specialist for Pre-K and Elementary programs. She holds an M.Ed. in Early Childhood Education and you will often find her combining her knowledge of young learners with her love for theater.

Team Player Awards

The Team Player is awarded to staff who is recognized by their peers. Infant Educator, Logan Crowley, and Assistant Educators,  Ace Walton and Phoebe Cos were selected as this year’s award winners – each goes above and beyond to support his/her colleagues, with warmth, willingness to jump in, and a positive outlook! We’re incredibly lucky to have such supportive and dedicated educators across SEEC!

While these 6 individuals were specifically recognized, we also took the time at our dinner to recognize each and every member of SEEC’s team.  We’re so incredibly fortunate to have a community of educators as strong and dedicated as those working here each day – it’s what makes SEEC the special place that it is – and we know you recognize that, too! An incredible 27 individuals were nominated this year, and we received more than 50 nominations for these talented educators!

Human Body Round Up

Recently we brought you a Teacher Feature from one of our three-year-old classes, the Koalas, as they learned about blood.  This lesson was part of a mini unit on the circulatory system, which fit into a larger unit on the human body.  The web below displays all the directions Koala teachers Katie Heimsath and Laura Muniz took the unit.  Following the web are photos highlighting some of their experiences.


5 Senses – Sense of Touch

2To explore their sense of touch, the class went to the National Museum of Natural History‘s Gem and Mineral Hall.  The children felt the gems and minerals that were labeled with a “Please Touch!” sign, and described what they felt using words such as cold, hard, smooth, and bumpy.

2Afterwards, the class sat down and played a game using their sense of touch.  Laura brought objects to put in the mystery box and each child took a turn feeling inside the box, describing what they felt, and then guessing what object was inside based on their observations.


1While learning about the skeletal system, the class talked about bones, and what happens when they break.  Since we know we cannot see our bones from the outside, the class learned about x-rays and how doctors use them to take a look at our bones if we hurt them.  To illustrate this, the class looked at bone x-rays on a light table to get a better idea of what doctors look at when seeing if a bone looks normal or injured. 1Laura explained how broken bones are wrapped in a cast so they can heal.  To make this concept more concrete, the children used bandages to cast a baby doll’s leg.


3To cap off their week on bones, the class talked about the ways in which we can keep our bones healthy and strong, including drinking milk, which contains calcium.  To explore where milk comes from, the class went to the Hirshhorn Sculpture Garden to see Joan Miró’s sculpture, Lunar Bird.  They used their imaginations to pretend the sculpture was a cow, and “milked an udder”, which was a plastic glove filled with water, and little holes cut into the ends.

Digestive System/Intestines

3The class began their week on the digestive system by focusing on where food enters our bodies – the mouth!  After seeing a giant mouth of a dinosaur, the children practiced their fine motor skills by cutting long strips of white paper into teeth and gluing them into a mouth.

4Explaining the length of intestines using only words can prove difficult for young children to understand, so Katie made it more concrete by measuring yarn to visualize how long intestines actually are.  After they measured the yarn, the class lay on the floor along the yarn to see how many kids it would take to make the length of the intestine, which turns out to be a lot! (7).pngAs they went through their week on the digestive system, the class added pieces to a paper model.  They used a straw to represent the esophagus, a balloon as a stomach and yarn and ribbon as the intestines.

We hope you enjoyed getting a bigger picture of our Koala class’ unit on the human body!  Visit our human body Pinterest board for more ideas.

Teacher Feature: Three Year Olds Explore Blood

It’s Teacher Feature Thursday!

This week we are featuring Katie Heimsath and Laura Muniz of the three-year-old Koala classroom.  Katie and Laura noticed a common interest among the children in human bodies and what they are capable of, so a unit on the human body commenced.  I joined them for a visit to the National Gallery of Art where they took a closer look at blood, and what goes into it.  Blood is a complex concept and this lesson is a great example of how we at SEEC are thinking about how to make a complex topic developmentally appropriate, approachable, hands-on and engaging for young children. Below you will find images and descriptions of the lesson, and a reflection from Katie and Laura.



Here are a few images from their lesson on Blood: the class first sat down, Katie asked the children to look at the painting Red Dance by Kenneth Young, and share what it reminded them of.  The piece reminded children of a brain, blood, and strawberries.  Katie shared that the painting reminded her of blood too, and that was what they were going to learn more about that day.  The class had already learned about how hearts and veins move blood around the human body, but now they were going to look at blood more in depth and see what elements make up blood.

5Katie asked, “Who has ever cut themselves and had blood come out?”  Immediately the children began to roll up sleeves or pant legs to display a cut, and several told stories about how they got their boo-boos.  Katie asked, “Did your cut keep bleeding forever, or did it stop? Is your cut still bleeding or has it stopped?”  The children said they weren’t still bleeding anymore, and Katie explained that cuts stop bleeding because a hard scab is formed by some platelets, just one part that makes up our blood.

3To take a closer look at blood, Katie read A Drop of Blood by Paul Showers.  This book is told from the perspective of a vampire and monster, and the children enjoyed the silliness of the illustrations, while the text provided information about what blood is and what it does.

4Katie asked the children what blood looks like when we cut ourselves, and the children said, “red”.  She explained that when we bleed it looks red like the red dots on the painting, but if you look really close, with a microscope, you can see the different parts of blood.  While the children are not as familiar with the concept of a microscope, they are very familiar with magnifying glasses, and Katie brought some out to make the connection that a microscope helps us to see small things that we can’t see with just our eyes. (8).jpgAs they went through the book, Katie paused to talk about white blood cells, red blood cells, plasma, and platelets.  The children passed around pictures of each to get a closer look, while Katie explained why each part is important for our bodies. (1).pngAfter reading the book it was time to make their own blood!  This activity provided a hands-on and engaging way for the children to practice what they had just learned.  Katie brought out three “drops of blood”, which were three circles of contact paper.  She said that the contact paper is sticky and looks wet, so it would be like the plasma, which keeps everything together. Then the children came up in turns to add red blood cells, and white blood cells (circles of red and white paper).

12To finish the blood, they added platelets, the small blood cells that come together to form a clot and stop a cut from bleeding. (15).pngAfter making one blood cell together, the class split up into two groups and worked together to make more drops of blood.  After they finished, there were some stray blood cells on the gallery floor, and the children were excited to help pick them up to leave the space clean. (16).pngBack at school in the afternoon, the class made their own blood cells that they could take home.

112Then it was time to make more blood, but this time it was an edible version for their afternoon snack!  First the class helped mix red food coloring into yogurt, which was the plasma.

11Next they added sliced grapes as the red blood cells.

7For the white blood cells, they added sliced bananas.

6And finally, they topped off their blood snack with red sprinkles, acting as the many platelets found in our blood.

1The only thing left to do was enjoy eating it!  By making blood in another way, the children experienced multiple exposure to the same concept, which helps to reinforce it.  They were also actively involved in the process, which not only makes it more fun, but helps to strengthen their understanding of the concept.

Reflection from Katie and Laura:

For the first several weeks of school, our class explored their similarities and differences through lessons on favorite things, what their families are like and identifying and expressing their feelings. We noticed that many children in our class were experiencing some major transitions: caring for new siblings, finishing potty training, trying new foods, even adjusting to a new school! Our daily routine, including bathroom time, nap time, lunch time, play time, etc. led to discussions about how and why our bodies need all of these activities. So into the Human Body we went! We divided this unit up by the different body systems; it was a simple way to break down a complicated topic to a three-year-old level and gave us the ability to answer specific questions our class had.

We first explored how people experience the world using their five senses and learned that our brain helps us interpret it all. In the weeks following, we learned parts and functions of the digestive system and investigated our skeletal system. After that, we dove into the circulatory system. Early in the week we learned about the parts of the body that move blood around like our heart, veins and arteries. This particular lesson was all about blood. Our class had a lot of questions about the color of blood, what its job is, and why it is wet. Like a lot of children, our kids viewed Band-Aids as the fixer of all problems. As teachers we noticed a great opportunity to talk about how our bodies use blood to make scabs. Our objectives for this lesson were to address and answer those specific questions as well as practice working together as a group. Through the lesson, they learned the four different parts of blood and how those parts work together to keep our body healthy. Teamwork is a hard, but important skill to practice, so we built it into the lesson with a small group activity.

We chose to visit Red Dance by Kenneth Young at the National Gallery of Art because it is so visually stimulating and looks similar to actual drops of blood. It’s located in a gallery that is quiet and big enough to accommodate a group of curious and wiggly three-year-olds who need some extra room. We brought printed and laminated illustrations of four different parts of blood and small magnifying glasses to accompany the lesson. We passed these objects and pictures around so that the class could have something to hold and focus their attention on, as well as connect new vocabulary to.

Due to the length of time we had been spending on our bodily processes, our class had a solid foundation of ideas and lots of vocabulary to build on. They connected past knowledge (“there must be a lot of blood going around my small intestine if it’s moving all those nutrients outta there”) and asked questions to deepen their learning. They were engaged and curious since the book we read, A Drop of Blood by Paul Showers, made this very technical topic a little more exciting. By giving them objects to hold and engage with, we helped make a difficult concept more concrete. We were able to point specifically to images of parts of the blood that we can’t see with our own eyes, and explain the function of each one.

We were surprised by how well the small groups worked together in the activity to make drops of blood, and also at how they worked together to help clean up. We used some small materials, such as hole punched paper circles, that blended in with the wooden floor, and it was quite funny to hear some of our class saying, “Oh! There are more platelets over there!” and “Get that red blood cell!”

In the afternoon, we made a “blood snack”. The teachers did all of the cutting of the fruit, but the children helped by dividing, measuring and sorting all of the ingredients. It incorporated their fine motor skills, tested their one-to-one correspondence, and recalled a lot of the vocabulary we learned in our morning museum visit. The group also practiced turn-taking since there weren’t enough individual helping jobs to go around. Our class doesn’t have too many picky eaters, but for the few who are usually hesitant to try new things, this activity made it a bit more exciting to have something unfamiliar at snack.

An element we would have liked to add, but didn’t get the chance to, would have been a gross motor component. Our class was focused in the museum, but we realized after the fact that we could have played a game on the playground to extend the topic. It certainly helped their need for movement to have an activity in the museum, but playing a chasing game outside or teamwork game as a group would have been another fun experience.

While we had success with our activities, some of the materials we used to make the drops of blood made it difficult to transition out of the gallery quickly. If any other element had become more complicated, the activity would have become too complicated to do in small group, and we would have needed to make the drops of blood as a singular group.

After our exploration of the circulatory system, we continued learning about muscles, our respiratory system and discussed germs and exercise. Since our class showed continued interest in learning how their bodies worked, we kept our unit going strong for several weeks!

Katie and Laura continued to explore the human body for a few more weeks. Stay tuned for the Human Body Round Up for more ideas from their unit!