BY K. MALATHY
Eight-year-old Fidelia Chan is playing a computer game at a 'brain training' class for kids.
Eyes glued to the colourful animation on the screen, she clicks her responses to auditory cues she hears on her headphones, racing confidently through different games.
Each game targets a different cognitive or language skill: memory, sequencing, sound discrimination, pitch, vocabulary, comprehension and grammar. There are thousands of combinations of games customised to one's abilities and Fidelia plays five sets today.
The games, part of a brain development software called Fast ForWord, require intense concentration, but the Primary 2 pupil seems to enjoy her session.
Her mother, Mrs Jess Chan, 33, a housewife, said: 'Fidelia wasn't always such a confident child. As a preschooler, she was quiet, very timid and awkward. Her language and motor skills were weak.'
Concerned, Mrs Chan sent her daughter for brain training classes. Each one-hour session at BrainFit Studio in Thomson Road, where Fidelia attends the classes, costs $70.
The Beacon Primary School pupil now turns in excellent school results. She speaks articulately and is also an avid reader. A Facebook user, she has recently taken up chess.
Meanwhile, at the Little Neuro Tree centre in Bugis, sisters Zelia Ang, 30 months old, and Phoelia Ang, 10 months old, are attending brain training classes for babies and toddlers.
The focus here is on learning three languages - English, Mandarin and either Malay or Japanese - as well as coordination and social skills. The fees are $550 to $600 for 12 one-hour lessons.
In one room, Phoelia and two other babies, each held lovingly by their mother or caregiver, lie on the straw mats covering the floor.
Their teacher tells them about the weather. 'It's cloudy today. The sky's full of clouds! Come, let's touch the clouds!" she says, as she passes around a piece of felt with a fleecy white cloud stuck on it. The babies touch the cloud with adult help.
The lesson moves to vocabulary. As the little ones watch attentively while kicking their feet, their teacher flashes giant picture cards in quick order, rattling off a list of words at the same time: asparagus, carrot, corn, beans, brinjal....
Zelia, in the toddler class, is busy buttoning little wheels onto a train as her teacher cheers her on in Japanese. Her mother, Madam Hazen Lim, 33, is encouraging her too.
Said Madam Lim, a housewife: 'This programme really stimulates the child's brain and parents interact with their children. Zelia is picking up Japanese, Mandarin and English well and Phoelia is very responsive to language.'
Can a 10-month-old learn three languages just from a one-hour class every week? Can young children learn to read, process information and do comprehension questions just from computer games?
How much can the brain do, really?
Quite a lot, said DrRoby Marcou, a senior consultant in paediatrics neurology at National University Hospital.
'Meaningful learning opportunities in early childhood allow the brain to develop rich brain connections, which set the stage for active thinking and learning beyond childhood,' she explained.
As for brain training sessions, she said there is not enough research to substantiate most claims. However, some programmes might help some children, particularly in the areas of visual or auditory attention.
She advocates, instead, 'rich, diverse play and conversation' as the best stimulation for brain development in children.
Dr Alvin Seah, a neurology specialist at Raffles Hospital, points out that babies' brains, in particular, are very responsive to stimulation. Indeed, a baby's brain is a veritable 'powerhouse of learning'.
Soon after birth, a baby's brain is already flooded with information. This information comes from various organs and goes to the brain to be processed. Doing this are nerve cells called neurons which make connections with each other and transmit the electrical impulses to the brain.
Working somewhat like telephone trunk lines strung between cities, a 'pathway" is formed to the correct area of the brain from a particular neuron. For example, neurons in the retina of the eye send impulses to the occipital lobe of the brain, where the visual receptor centre is.
In the first few years of life, the child's brain grows rapidly. As each neuron matures, it sends out multiple branches (axons, which send information out, and dendrites, which take in information), increasing the number of contacts and laying the specific connections from neuron to neuron.
A child aged two to three years old will have about 15,000 synapses, or contact points, per neuron - almost twice that of an average adult brain.
In fact, as we age, unused connections are deleted and old brain cells are purged too.
That is why, Dr Seah said, 'the best window for learning is from birth till about adolescence'. He added that the young brain is particularly attuned to learning language and music. Hence, young children are able to learn two or three languages much more easily than adults can.
This article was first published in The Straits Times.