Saturday, 5 November 2011

Black and white areas in nurseries - why have them?

Nothing could be more welcome than the current high level of interest in how babies are cared for in nurseries. There are numerous “baby room projects” going on across the country, most notably the research project which is being led by Canterbury Christ Church University, and the training project led by Northamptonshire Council. Early Education’s new “Baby Room Special Interest Group” [PDF] has generated huge interest, too. It feels much better than how things were a few years ago, when I was advised that a not terribly good nursery practitioner working with three and four year olds “would probably be okay for the baby room”.

Much of the new interest in babies is prompted by the popularization of findings from both the study of observable child development, and from neuroscience. Not long ago, we did not think much of babies’ perceptual abilities and ability to think. The great nineteenth century psychologist William James argued that “the baby, assailed by eyes, ears, nose, skin, and entrails at once, feels it all as one great blooming, buzzing confusion.” It is now much more common to focus on the amazing sophistication of the baby’s senses and brain, with Alison Gopnik famously describing babies as “the best learning machines in the universe.”

This type of scientific way of talking about babies has done a lot to dispel the myth that a day in a baby room would be about as interesting as a day watching raindrops slide down a window. But it has its downsides, too. Parents can often be bamboozled – now that babies have become amazing learning machines, there is an assumed requirement to stimulate their learning and development all the time. The machine needs its fuel. The other day I was close to a popular park in North London when I saw a poster titled Genius Babies, listing information about babies’ brains, their synapses and trillions of connections and so on.

This is all very well, until you get further into the text and realise it is actually a sales pitch for a type of class for babies, offering various special activities (at a charge).  Your amazement at the power of the “learning machine” is, therefore, turned into an anxiety that you are not doing enough and, therefore, a proportion of those trillions of neural connections might never happen if you do not take action and join a class.

Of course, many ordinary experiences will support a baby’s brain development just as well as any “genius baby” class, at no special cost.  I feel the same way about caring for babies in nurseries – giving them attention, warm relationships, and interesting materials to play with inside and out is what we should be aiming at. So Treasure Basket and Heuristic Play, in the context of a caring environment organized around the key person approach, and a good range of other play materials, including natural materials like sand and water, inside and outdoors, will do very well for the babies.

On the other hand, I am very sceptical of some of the newer developments in the care of babies, especially the rise of black and white areas, and displays. I suppose the first thing I should declare is that I simply do not like them. I find them too stark and overstimulating. If I were immobile, I would hate to be put in an area of black and white toys or posters, with no way out.

Just like sellers of the “genius baby” classes, the proponents of the black and white trend cite scientific research and evidence. For example, the handbook which goes with the Northamptonshire Baby Room Project states the following:

“The first year of life is a critical period for development and learning. During this time, babies have difficulty distinguishing between different tones and shades. During their first few months of life, they see mostly in shades of grey. High contrasting colours, particularly black and white are a simple and effective way to stimulate babies’ vision. Black and white images in distinct regular patterns provide the highest possible contrast to the eye and gain babies’ attention. This helps develop neural connections in the baby’s brain. Babies are attracted to bold geometrical designs and these images can hold their interest and help them to focus. Spaces rich in high quality displays are necessary to promote visual development.”

In general, the Northamptonshire Baby Room Project has had a very positive impact on practice. For example, in the area where I work as an early years adviser, it has helped many practitioners to reflect on and develop the quality of their practice, But in this specific respect I would argue that the Project may have been taken in by some popular “myths” about babies’ visual abilities that have been propagated, mainly, by the toy industry. For example, careful scientific research does not support the view that babies see mostly in shades of grey in the first few months of life, or that they “need” to be exposed to large high-contrast (black-and-white) patterns to “promote visual development”. Professor Russell D. Hamer of the University of São Paulo and Affiliate Scientist at the Smith-Kettlewell Eye Research Institute in California, with many years of experience studying infant vision, summarises the current understanding as follows: “Infants have been shown to have color vision at least as early as 2 to 8 weeks post natal (Allen, Banks and Norcia, 1993), and the likelihood is that they have color vision at birth.”  While their color vision certainly seems to be developing over the first months and years, it is by no means absent in young infants.

Nor is there evidence to support the claim that during the first year of life, babies have difficulty in distinguishing between a wide range of  shades of grey. For example, research by Norcia, Tyler  and Hamer in 1990 showed that babies’ brains at nine weeks of age can respond to contrasts as low as 0.5%, only 2 times less sensitive than adults who were tested with the exact same patterns. A contrast of 0.5% is extremely subtle indeed, having 200 times less contrast than black and white (100%-contrast) patterns. This high sensitivity to contrast  occurs, initially, for patterns that are relatively large – like the size of your fingers at arms length. But infants are by no means unable to see finer patterns if they have higher contrast.

If the science does not really stack up, then what about the practice? The handbook suggests that black and white patterns are an important resource because they gain babies’ attention and therefore develop neural connections in the baby’s brain. This claim is specious. While it is known that deprivation of pattern information arriving at the retina and brain (as can happen if a baby is born with a congenital cataract) can lead to a profound loss of acuity (detail vision) and contrast sensitivity, there is no evidence that the use of high-contrast large black-and-white patterns promote or accelerate development of neural connections in the visual centers of the brain. Thus the practice of emphasis on creating a high-contrast black-and-white environment is questionable.

I would argue that this approach to early years practice is misguided, and can mislead practitioners and parents alike. It is true that large high-contrast patterns do gain babies’ attention (they certainly gain mine); but is this type of attention-grabbing practice good for babies? As the research shows that babies are able to see a broad repertoire of patterns, contrasts and colors, surely it would be preferable  to allow babies to direct their own attention during exploratory play in a normal environment rich with a range of stimuli. ”

Despite the science, marketing literature and even books for parents continue to claim that large black and white patterns are required to “develop neural connections”. One must be mindful that these sorts of statements can be very powerful. They can make practitioners feel that unless they take the suggested actions, the baby’s brain development will not be as good as it might have been. This puts people under a lot of pressure to bring in new practice.

Tina Bruce, Professor of Early Childhood Studies at Roehampton University, urges practitioners to take a different approach: “Quality practice refers to research and engages in dialogue with other practitioners about how it may or may not have application. It works best when it is building on the way parents spend time with their babies, so that parents are empowered and made confident. This avoids the problem of introducing innovations which are really pieces of fashion. Working with babies should never be based on passing fashions, but instead should embed tried and tested good practice, supported and informed by research and theory which helps practitioners to be reflective, and to adjust their practice in conversations with parents and grandparents accordingly.”

There are a few additional points to bear in mind here. First, there is an important difference between stimulating babies’ perceptual development – hearing and vision, for example – and their cognitive and social development. No particular techniques or pieces of equipment are needed to stimulate babies’ perceptual development. Evolution has seen to that. On the other hand, babies do need affection, language, and play opportunities in order to develop cognitively and socially. Those developments do not “just happen” – so in nursery, it is important that there is the right blend of care, stimulation and rest. In this respect, the Northamptonshire Baby Room Project has had a very positive influence on practice. It is also important to note that some babies with disabilities and special educational needs might require special forms of visual stimulation. They may benefit from more large, high contrast patterns in the environment than would normally be needed in the environment.

So what should practitioners do to help babies’ visual development?  Dr Hamer points out that “a whole range of studies show that young infants have enough acuity, contrast sensitivity, color vision and focusing ability for me to say that the most sensible visual environment to create for them is a very natural one with the full range of colors, saturations, contrasts, pattern sizes, movement and even aesthetic and socially relevant ‘stimuli’  - artwork, faces, animals.” In other words – you do not need to do anything much at all. Give babies an environment which has a normal range of natural colours, contrasts, motion and their vision, attention and everything else will develop perfectly well in an atmosphere of care, cuddles, attention and affection.

A shorter version of this piece was first published in Nursery World

I would like to thank Professor Russell D. Hamer for his help with the science underpinning this article. However, any errors are my own responsibility.


Does chromatic sensitivity develop more slowly than luminance sensitivity?
Allen D, Banks MS, Norcia AM.
Vision Res. 1993 Dec;33(17):2553-62.

Development of contrast sensitivity in the human infant.
Norcia AM, Tyler CW, Hamer RD.
Vision Res. 1990;30(10):1475-86.