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How one classic childhood game actually benefits young babies’ brains

It turns out the trips to the grocery store with baby in tow doesn’t only help feed your family, but also your little one’s brain. All you have to jumpstart some new cognitive connections is play a little game of I Spy: “On our left, we have some green broccoli. See the green broccoli?”

As funny as it may seem to play tour guide to an infant while in the grocery store, new research published in Trends in Neurosciences proves these little field trips are building connections in your baby’s brain. The study, conducted by Children’s National Health System, links early interaction with stimulating, colorful environments to stronger brains in infants—long before they are able to verbally respond to your questions and prompts.

“As it responds to environmental stimuli, the brain continually shores up myelin’s integrity,” study author Vittorio Gallo, Ph.D, Chief Research Officer at Children’s National, said in a press release. “It helps to strengthen motor and cognitive function and permits children and adults to learn new skills and to record new memories.”

Gallo’s work suggests parents who trade baby talk for sensory quizzes can help babies connect language to their surroundings (“look at those red tomatoes!), which develops a strong neural network that will serve kids later in life.

Even when the fridge is stocked, here’s how parents can continue to support brain stimulation at home...

Offer varied toys—and playmates

Playtime can play a role, according to the researchers. Gallo and his team encourage parents to expose children to new and different objects, and give them opportunities for physical play with different playmates. So, invite some friends over for a playdate if you want to boost your baby’s brain volume.

Turn on some music

The research found exposure to tunes helps with cognition, hearing and motor skills. Down the road, learning an instrument in childhood helps increase the brain’s white matter integrity and plasticity. (Where can we sign up for piano lessons?)

Promote physical activity—even with the little crawlers

The research concludes that the best thing parents can do for growing baby brains is enrich their environment through novelty, new experiences and—when they’re old enough—opportunities for physical movement.

Best of all, these brain-building activities are free and easy. So go ahead and swap those fancy baby flashcards for an old-fashioned game of I Spy!

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