You don’t need to be a neuroscientist but it does help if you know a little about early brain development. This will then in turn will help you support your child’s learning and development. In their first few years of life your child’s brain undergoes amazing development, unlike anything that happens later in their life. It’s a crucial time when the experiences they have, both good and bad will have profound effects that last a lifetime.
How does a child’s brain develop? Key facts you need to know
- Babies are born with 80% of their brain already formed.
- The brain is made of brain cells called neurons that create connections called synapses.
- Babies are born with 100 billion neurons but only about a quarter of the synapses (connections) are made.
- A child’s brain undergoes an amazing period of development from birth to three - producing more than a million neural connections each second.
- Every new experience creates new connections in the brain, if this is repeated the connection is strengthened if it is unused it will disappear or be ‘forgotten’.
Why are the early years so crucial for development?
Learning through play
Between the ages of 0 – 3 years as babies’ and toddlers’ natural inclination to play holistically (covering many different aspects of learning) and heuristically (experientially) builds these vital new connections in the brain. Each one of these connections helps build personality and develops potential.
Brain growth slows down after adolescence
Between the age of three and adolescence, the synapses that are underused start to get pruned out, meaning brain growth slows down, and connections are harder to make in areas that have been pruned. This ensures that the connections that are regularly used get stronger, and those that aren’t used are cut back, so the brain effectively becomes more efficient. In turn, things that are used often, like language and walking stay, while things that are neglected disappear.
If you are in a bilingual home this is the crucial time to ensure that your child’s exposure to a second or third language is constant.
Increased synapse growth = quick learning
During this critical period your child will develop and grow synapses at a faster rate than at any other time in their life. In fact, they make many more than they actually need and some will be lost but this is what allows them to learn things more quickly than adults do.
There are windows of opportunity for the brain to change later on in life where the conditions for learning are positive and connections can be reformed in the brain, this is known as ‘ brain plasticity’. However, the prime time to develop specific knowledge, skills and competencies is in the first three years of a child’s life.
What can parents do to help create an enriched environment to support optimal learning?
“By encouraging creativity and imagination, we are promoting children’s ability to explore and comprehend their world and increasing their opportunities to make new connections and reach new understandings’, says Bernadette Duffy, (2006), Supporting Creativity and Imagination in the Early Years, Oxford University.
You are already doing it!
An environment which can support optimal learning means offering your child high quality social and cultural experiences that will encourage healthy brain development and the development of a well rounded personality. The chances are that you are already doing this by taking your child to the park, building Lego cities, drinking endless cups of pretend tea but you may not have realised it. By sharing these experiences you are helping your child build context, make meaning and deepen their understanding of the world around them.
The hard part for you as a parent is sustaining these interactions. Try to resist the temptation to tip the Lego out and sit down with your phone and a coffee. Put on your superhero cape and get involved. You will genuinely enhance your child’s learning experience if you do this consistently.
Learning through active play
Families are children’s first educators and, as such, children’s home experiences together with the natural predispositions that they are born with play an important part in what and how they learn. Human beings are social creatures and because of this, it’s important to take time and space to get actively involved with your children.
Singing silly songs, building a cardboard fort, it doesn’t really matter what activity you chose, it’s the conversation and participation which is important. Talking to your little one not only encourages language development, but it also helps them become a better learner through making and strengthening connections in their brain.
Cater to children’s different learning styles
As mentioned earlier young children learn holistically, which means they learn from everything all at the same time. Something they learn from one experience will connect with something else seemingly unrelated and form a connection which builds context and meaning. Sounds complicated but here’s an example. Give your child play dough and it will help them develop different types of learning: cognitive, fine motor, gross motor skills and creativity. Finger painting and crafts involving cutting with scissors are also good.
Sensory play and learning
Young children learn a huge amount through their senses which become finely tuned LONG before they may have mastered speaking or reasoning skills. They need lots of relevant opportunities to explore the objects and materials around them with all of their senses. This helps them to construct and test theories, make decisions, overcome challenges, foster empathy, build resilience and solve problems for themselves so that they can become independent, confident and competent individuals.
Sensory activities which offer interesting textures, colours, food or music for example, are a great way to get your child’s brain working. They can be very simple and easy to do at home, such as blowing and bursting bubbles, an empty tub full of dry pasta or lentil... just dive in and explore. If you’re feeling brave cooked cold pasta is great fun to squeeze and squish or make a batch of slime together. You might make a bit of a mess but chances are you’ll have fun and give your little one a fantastic learning experience too!
A healthy and balanced diet for your child
Finally it’s worth mentioning the obvious perhaps, the importance of a balanced diet. Our brains require immense amounts of energy and nutrients in order to develop and work properly. This is especially true during the period of rapid development in early childhood. Therefore, nutrition plays a key role in brain development. A diverse diet rich in proteins, vitamins and minerals will greatly benefit your child.
“Children need nurturing far longer than any other species and the quality of this nurturing has a major impact on how well children develop and then fulfil their potential. This task is not primarily one that belongs to the state. It is the aspirations and actions of parents which are critical to how well their children prosper.” Frank Field MP - The Foundation Years 2010