RENOWNED zoologist, author and broadcaster Desmond Morris has just bought out a new book called Child where he explores the early development of pre-school children between the ages of two and five. Now 82, and after a lifetime of visiting different cultures and observing children, he says that the biggest message to take from his book is how pre-school children are much cleverer than you might think. " Their brains are growing and developing and if they are given a rich environment they will grow more and more. The connections between brain cells are a result of using the brain. There's the potential for 1,000trn connections in the human brain," he says.
Since Child was published, Morris has been making the headlines for his 'supposed' views on television, but he wishes to dispel the idea that he thinks TV is better for children than reading.
" I'm against a lot of modern television for young children because I don't think it understands the need to sit down quietly and enjoy something. What I do say in the book, and this is where the confusion arose, is if you sit down to watch a classic film such as Cinderella or The Wizard of Oz with a child that can be an enormously rewarding experience.
"A classic feature film not only gives them the words, but it also gives them music and visual images. I think that is as good as reading a book. But I am against dumping a child in front of a television."
As regards reading in these formative years, Morris says it's very important for children to develop an understanding of language and also to have quality time with their parents. He says parents should make reading to their child a daily ritual. " If the book has good language in it, the child learns. One of the faults I have observed is that some adults talk to children in a sort of ' gu-gu' language." However, if the parent talks to the child in normal English, although the child may not be able to reproduce it yet, they will still be learning, says Morris.
" Even at this very tender age the toddler's brain is soaking up language and the ability and speed at which small children acquire language is astonishing.
" Because the child can't always reproduce complicated sentences, that doesn't mean to say that they don't understand them."
When reading, he does warn that children are incredibly sensitive as to whether a parent is enjoying their company or not.
"A child will detect if a parent is genuinely taking pleasure out of reading a book to them. If the parent puts expression into the story, then the child will benefi t enormously.
" The parent has almost got to live it as he or she reads the story," explains Morris. " The tone of voice is as important as the words. If the book has good illustrations, it helps to show them the pictures as they go through it."
He recommends finding a series of books that your child enjoys, especially if they get to know a character as they go through different adventures.
" It's a matter of tailoring the book to their age as well. You can tell very quickly if they are responding to it.
" I think stories for children should be quite short so they can have a complete story or chapter at bedtime," concludes Morris.
Child: How children think, learn and grow in the early years by Desmond Morris is published by Hamlyn and retails at £25 sterling ( hardback).
Mother & Babies