Brain Development 0-3

One of the most important times for brain growth and development occurs between the time of conception and the third year of life. In fact, by the time a child reaches age three, their brain volume has reached 80% of its maximum potential once development is complete at age 25.

During this time a child nearly two times as many synapses (which submit messages between neurons) than is needed. As synapses are infrequently used, they die off (a process referred to as pruning). The synapses a child is left with are directly correlated with their early experiences as repeated experiences, be they positive or negative, strengthen synapses. Therefore, if a child is repeatedly exposed to domestic violence, yelling, and negative reinforcement, this strongly impacts the child’s ability to regulate emotions and respond appropriately to environmental stressors. Conversely, if a child is exposed to cooperative play and a calm environment their interpersonal skills and reactions to the world around them will likely be more positive in nature.

Also impacting brain development in the early childhood years are adverse childhood experiences, or ACEs. The number of ACEs a child is exposed to, as well as how often and how prolonged exposure is, directly impacts the way the brain develops and how we respond to the world around us. ACEs are so influential, in fact, that new research is showing that ACEs actually alter our DNA, which in turn alters the DNA of future generations.

While at face value this information about ACEs and the impact of trauma on brain development is distressing, it isn’t all doom and gloom. Positive experiences (or protective factors) can help to offset the effects of ACEs. That’s why places like HelloBaby are so important. HelloBaby provides a safe, warm, consistent environment for caregivers and children alike, a place where joint attention, play, and exploration can take place. Opportunities to play, both on their own and with their caregivers, is monumental to mental health.

Why is play so important to positive mental health and happy growth and development?

Play is the work of childhood. While what we see as adults may appear silly or unimportant, what we cannot see happening during play is what needs to be focused upon. Play helps children to process and make sense of the world around them. Play helps children to work through and make sense of events that children see and experience, both positive and negative. Play is a child’s life narrative, a way to safely express themselves with the use of inanimate objects (cars, dolls, etc) without fear of getting into trouble. After all, a child won’t be punished if a doll hits another doll when it is angry whereas a child who hits another child will almost certainly be reprimanded. It is through play that children are able to act out and work through issues surrounding new siblings, divorce, domestic violence, moving, and death.

Play can also help to further bond caregiver to child. Play is a time to be silly, to have attention free from directives and demands of adults in a world that is often not child friendly. Play with a caregiver is time for a different kind of attention, an opportunity to collaborate to build something new, be it literally with Legos or blocks, or figuratively with make believe and books. When a child and caregiver are able to connect through play, they are interacting in a way that is very different than the traditional parent-child dyad. In play, the child can be, and often is, the boss, the director. The parent demonstrates trust by allowing the child to direct the activity and the play, thereby boosting the child’s confidence and self-esteem. Not only is the caregiver taking time out of their schedule to interact with the child, but they are also allowing the child to take the lead, a sense of power the child may not often experience.

Why HelloBaby?

What children so desperately need, especially in this time of “screens”, be it television, computer, or electronics, is time with their caregiver. Time to establish a bond, to laugh, to experience. Unfortunately, in Chicago, many families in many neighborhoods don’t play. This is for a variety of reasons but mainly social and economic factors are at play. Caregivers are working more than one job to support their family and are exhausted, too exhausted to play. Play centers, classes, and parenting groups often come with a price tag, and a steep one at that. For a family struggling to make ends meet, this is not an option. Finally, due to neighborhood violence, many families do not feel safe taking their children to parks to play. Even parks are not protected- it is not unusual to find needles, bullets, to see drug deals or even shootings. An innocent family outing can easily turn deadly.

HelloBaby provides a safe, consistent environment in which to learn, grow, and nurture young children… and their caregivers. It is a place to come for support and for play, to connect with your child and disconnect from the outside world. It is free of charge, clean, and consistent. It is a place for caregivers to bond with their children while promoting positive brain growth and development needed to learn in school and develop positive relationships throughout the lifespan.

For more information on brain and early childhood development, check out the following websites:

Or send us a message. We would love to hear from you!

– Ashley Bennett, MSW Lurie Children’s Hospital, Associates Board HelloBaby

HelloBaby Design Comments

Healthy play and development

We framed the design process for Hello Baby with the pioneering work of child development specialist Bob Hughes, who categorized the 16 types of play that children need for healthy development. These include socio-dramatic play, which re-enacts the real experiences of children, such as having a cookout in Washington Park; Social Play, where children practice following social rules such as working cooperatively on the art wall; Dramatic Play, where children may use puppets to work through difficult life experiences they have observed such as an event on the street; and Locomotor Play, in which children move in any direction for movement’s sake, such as sliding down the slide or playing peek-a-boo.

Our work began with a community Play Inventory that identified existing community play amenities, identified unmet needs, and prioritized opportunities. The resulting space responds to the entire spectrum of young children’s need for play, in a space that is universally appealing, inspiring, and supports a child’s development in self-regulation and executive function.


Hello Baby is a Yes-space. This space answers, “Yes” to a child’s need to “do it myself.” Yes, you can hang up your own coat on a hook you can reach. Yes, you can fill your own water cup to paint art right on the big slate wall. Yes, you can practice toileting on a potty just your size. Yes, you can put on a puppet show in the window for the audience at the bus stop outside.

Connections between caregivers, children and volunteers/staff

The Hello Baby space is full of delightful surprises designed to spark healthy engagement between caregivers, children, and staff and volunteers. These moments of discovery are intended to ignite creative play and give care-givers and shy little ones an “easy-in” into the imaginative world. This provides a scaffold for conversation and play and creates a culture of joy that reinforces appropriate behavior.

There are dimensional clouds above, a beehive with a wheeley-bee ride-on toy, a peek-a-boo mirror waiting to be discovered in a soft nook, and friendly animals peeking out around the room. Discovery activates the critical “play and seeking systems” of the brain that are typically not exercised at home. This helps with development of the frontal lobes – the part of the brain involved in cognitive function, social intelligence, and focused, goal-oriented behaviors.

Social engagement

The cozy nook at Hello Baby is designed to facilitate social interaction and address the social isolation of young parents and care-givers. The space is intentionally cozy to create conversation. The infant toys are stored on one wall of the nook so that parents have a casual ice-breaker to start conversation by asking to pass a toy. The cushions are soft to encourage families to linger and the bench is at the right height to be an appealing perch for an older or disabled caregiver. Bringing the babies into the front window for tummy time will bring a smile to passerby and provide positive feedback to engaged parents. Generating comradery among care-givers can refresh the spirit, and in a broader impact start to connect local resources and strengthen the community.

Donor Recognition

We have a beautiful Donor Wall for Hello Baby. The theme is Nature and each donor is recognized on a butterfly perched in a tree. There are peek-a-boo forest friends hidden among the trees to make it an interactive play element for parents and children. The message we want to convey is that donors are the sustaining roots, that Hello Baby provides structure (the tree) for healthy and engaged parent-child interaction, and the butterflies represent the soaring confidence and independence of children who have been given this opportunity to develop through play.

– Shannon Gedey, Architect, Perkins + Will