What is Environmental Enrichment?

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Environmental enrichment is the placement of stimulating objects in someone's environment to encourage more extensive brain development. Research on this topic dates to the 1940s, when people first started noting that the environment rats were raised in had an impact on their ability to solve mazes and puzzles. Researchers also examined humans and noted similar phenomena, with people raised in stimulating environments having larger and more developed brains than those raised in relative deprivation. These findings are important for understanding brain development and coming up with ways to treat people in recovery from brain injuries.

Infants who are deprived of stimulation can experience slower cognitive development than children who are raised in an enriched environment.
Infants who are deprived of stimulation can experience slower cognitive development than children who are raised in an enriched environment.

Environmental enrichment starts very young. In one example, an infant needs visual stimulation to develop visual acuity and learn to differentiate between different kinds of objects. Something simple like a mobile hanging over a crib can have profound impact on brain development. Providing infants with toys to manipulate, as well as enrichment like songs and simply talking to the baby helps the brain develop neurons. More complex connections inside the brain will emerge, and the brain will grow more quickly and extensively than in a child with minimal environmental enrichment.

Research on environmental enrichment dates back to the 1940's when it was noted that the environment a rat was raised in had an impact on its performance in a maze.
Research on environmental enrichment dates back to the 1940's when it was noted that the environment a rat was raised in had an impact on its performance in a maze.

Children raised in deprivation, like very austere orphanage environments or impoverished homes where people cannot afford toys and other sources of stimulation, can experience slower cognitive development. This can become an obstacle later in life, as things like problem solving skills, quick thinking, and the ability to interact with other people at a high level of sophistication are necessary for success in most settings. Lack of environmental enrichment may close many opportunities to a child.

Encouraging exploration in a safe environment can enhance sensory development.
Encouraging exploration in a safe environment can enhance sensory development.

Children are not the only people who benefit from environmental enrichment. Studies on people with degenerative brain diseases, brain injuries, and similar issues show that they can recover more fully and more quickly if they are provided with an enriched environment. Providing stimulation triggers recovery, can contribute to the growth of neurons, and will help the brain remap itself and establish new connections to compensate for damage. Activities like puzzles do not just provide entertainment, but also facilitate recovery.

Providing infants with toys helps their brains develop neurons.
Providing infants with toys helps their brains develop neurons.

Studies on environmental enrichment illustrate the importance of stimulation early in life, as well as in the wake of a brain injury. Stimulation needs to start before children go to school, as young brains develop quickly and are highly elastic. In addition, they benefit immensely from receiving lots of sensory input from different stimuli, like textures to teach the nervous system how to differentiate between subtle surface variations, and sounds so people can identify and learn to understand speech.

Studies on people with brain injuries show that they can recover more quickly if they are provided with an enriched environment.
Studies on people with brain injuries show that they can recover more quickly if they are provided with an enriched environment.
Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a wiseGEEK researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

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