Speaker: How children learn can teach us much

Andrew Meltzoff spoke at an annual luncheon for the local Early Learning Coalition.

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More information on the Walla Walla Valley Early Learning Coalition is available online.

WALLA WALLA -- Scientists are continuously learning from the rapid way children learn during the first few years of life.

Brain research into the way infants and toddlers learn is helping shed light on the nature of learning and human development.

That was part of the message delivered by Andrew Meltzoff, a leading researcher in infant and child development, during the fourth annual "Our Kids, Our Business" luncheon held Tuesday at Whitman College.

Each year, a prominent figure in early learning research and studies has been invited to speak at the event. Meltzoff, an expert on infant and child development, was this year's guest speaker. Meltzoff's research as co-director of the University of Washington's Institute for Learning and Brain Sciences focuses on early cognition and personality and brain development.

His books, "The Scientist in the Crib: What Early Learning Tells Us about the Mind" and "Words, Thoughts and Theories," explore some of the institute's research and findings.

Meltzoff described the complex learning that occurs in the early years of life, or first 5 years, as almost magical.

"The first 2,000 days are incredibly important for the rest of their lives," he said.

His research has shown that even children as young as 1, without the need of spoken language, can replicate simple gestures, like putting an object in a cup, after it is demonstrated to them.

"Human beings learn what to do, and what not to do, by watching others," he said.

That type of learning sets the stage for children to learn things like foreign languages more easily during their first few years of life. The way children learn, by copying, is also enhanced by strong, positive interactions with the adults they encounter daily.

Meltzoff used his research findings to illustrate how critical it is to provide good, quality early learning to children. He emphasized the value of teaching by demonstrating, stating children and humans in general learn best when they are replicating what they are shown.

"Everything we're learning is that the social brain turns on other aspects of learning," he said.

The luncheon included introductions by Megan Clubb, president and chief executive officer of Baker Boyer Bank, and Whitman College President George Bridges. Each shared photos of their own children, and spoke about the importance of supporting and maintaining early learning opportunities for area children.

"We need to make sure all children in our community, all children, have opportunities to learn and grow," Clubb said.

Hosted by the Walla Walla Valley Early Learning Coalition, the even was held at Whitman's Reid Campus Ballroom, and drew about 120 attendees.

The event serves "to gather business and community leaders, together with early learning professionals, to raise awareness, maintain momentum and celebrate achievements," said Samantha Bowen, director of Early Childhood and Parenting Education Programs at Walla Walla Community College. Bowen is also program manager for the ELC.

The ELC's mission is to mobilize the community to support parents as their children's first teachers and to improve access to high-quality early learning opportunities for all young children.

The luncheon has helped draw and engage new community partners each year. Donations received at the luncheon go directly to community early learning partners to support programs. Donations from last year's luncheon were used to buy winter coats, boots and gloves for children, as well as children's and parenting books for local families.

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