The Importance of Healthy Brain Development – Top Advice From a Leading Neuroscientist

Dr. Kristen Willeumier is a nationally-acclaimed neuroscientist. As a brain development and health specialist, she’s traveled the country to educate people about the brain – and how their daily choices affect its well-being. She joins SoCal City Kids today to discuss some key topics regarding the growing brain. As parents, it’s important for us to understand the unique role the brain plays in ensuring the healthy development of our children. From sports to lifestyle habits, here are Dr. Willeumier’s top tips. If you’d like to learn more, please visit Dr. Willeumier online at:

1. What risks do contact sports pose for developing brains?

A child’s brain is in its most active growth phase from birth until it reaches maturity around the age of 25, so we need to be mindful of exposing our children to unnecessary impacts during this very vulnerable stage of life.  Contact sports such as football, ice hockey, wrestling and soccer have head impacts as an inherent nature of the sport, so there is a risk of cellular damage to the brain following every impact, whether your child shows symptoms or not.

  1. How can sports be made safer for children?

The safest sports for children are those in which impacts are not inherent to the sport and include baseball, basketball, swimming, track and field, tennis, volleyball and golf to name a few.  While children may still be at risk for a head injury while participating in these sports, you are not exposing them to repeated impacts to the head on every play.  Safety also includes wearing the appropriate equipment for your sport and making sure that referees are present to enforce the rules of the game so that unnecessary collisions and aggressive acts are not being committed.

  1. What lifestyle habits most affect brain development? (For example, how important is sleep?)

All of our lifestyle habits play an essential role in brain development, but three of the most impactful are exercise, nutrients and sleep.  What this means for children is to engage them in sports and activities that promote movement, as this will carry oxygen to the developing brain.  Providing them with a nutrient rich diet loaded with high oxygen content foods including green leafy vegetables and antioxidant rich foods including organic fruits and vegetables can go a long way towards preserving brain health.  And finally, given the tremendous amount of growth the brain is going through at this time, it requires plenty of sleep, so make sure children ages 6-13 get between 9-11 hours each night.

  1. Large class sizes are a big issue in California – some Kindergarten classes can have nearly 30 students. Can this affect brain health, or a child’s ability to learn?

Research demonstrates that small class sizes have been thought to influence learning and student achievement in a positive way, which is why some states have enacted legislation in order to keep class sizes limited.  Those children who have been diagnosed with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) or issues with sustained focus and concentration are going to be one group that may be adversely impacted by larger class sizes.  The key is to monitor how your child is performing in school, and if their grades are not commensurate with their academic potential, your child may require more one on one attention, whether that is at home while doing homework or with a tutor, to compensate for issues that might arise with larger class sizes.

  1. What are some of the best extracurricular activities for a healthy growing brain? (Music, learning a new language, etc.)

Engaging in any extracurricular activities that your child is curious or passionate about will help to stimulate the developing brain.  This can include everything from physical exercise to strategic mental games and creative outlets including painting, art, dance, cooking, singing, playing a musical instrument, athletics, chess games, card games, spelling bees, learning a foreign language, creative writing and reading to name a few.  The key is to support your child’s innate curiosity to express themselves in the world and as those skill sets are learned through daily engagement in the activity, it will foster the development of neural connections in the brain.


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