What do parents who also happen to be scientists (like me) do when faced with a subject they know nothing about but affects their lives directly? We research!
However, I found very little information about early child development that was evidence-based enough to satisfy me, and at the same time simple and easy to understand.
So, I decided to write myself the article I was looking for!
I started with a bit of research about the scientific facts supporting early childhood education and childcare. Being a new mom I had no idea of what I was doing, and the scientist in me needed evidence.
I was curious because our girls go to a daycare with a specific non-traditional approach, and also because neurobiology is so fascinating to me.
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In this blog for Your Brain Health, I summarise 10 neuroscience facts I’ve learned about early child development, and how to help young brains flourish and become resilient.
Fact 1: During the first years of life children’s brains grow faster than at any other period
Early brain development sets the foundations for emotion, memory and decision-making in adulthood.
The brain of a newborn has nearly as many neurons as an adult brain. During the first few years of life, infant’s and children’s brain undergo massive restructuration of their neural networks, new neurons are born, and new connections sprout and existing connections are refined.
Around age 3, children have twice as many synapses (neuronal connections) as an adult; some will remain throughout adulthood but others will be gradually eliminated during late childhood and adolescence according to the unique experiences each child has.
How home and daycare environments support brain development
- Give the child the chance to participate in daily activities according to each child’s age; for example, helping to prepare food, cleaning or personal hygiene.
- Encourage children to have a close relationship with nature.
- Give them the time to engage and repeat the activity of their choice. This allows their brain to rest on the experiences that are more important for them in the moment.
- Don’t expect children to spend long periods of time sitting down. Give children the freedom to move around the class.
- Give children time to explore: this is called free play. They can decide what material and activity they will use.
- Children learn with their hands; they enjoy touching the toys or materials. This way of learning is called hands-on experience. The brain is receiving information from all senses, and this is how brains develop and understand the world.
Tip: The brain develops by having experiences: give the child space and time to experiment.
“You can’t make children grow faster by pushing them, just as you can’t make flowers grow faster by pulling them.” Otto Weininger
Fact 2: Sensitive periods are critical for learning and refining cognitive functions
Our brain goes through during periods of intense development known as critical periods. Most occur in infancy, but some arrive as late as the teenage years. During critical periods, brains rapidly develop abilities such as vision, language and social skills. Experience in the form of sensory input — vision, sound and so on — is needed to form new synapses, strengthen existing connections, prune superfluous dendrites, and add more myelin when faster communication is required.
Critical periods are when the brain not only uses but absolutely requires sensory experiences to remodel and refine the neural circuits.
Myelination is related to sensitive periods
Myelin coats and insulates axons and helps neurons conduct signals efficiently, which in turn helps the brain perform complex tasks. Myelinated axons conduct information 100 times faster than unmyelinated axons (which means quicker thinking).
The process of myelination is the last step in the maturation of the neuronal network: is the brain’s way of saying: “This skill is important in the world around me, I need to pay attention to this”.
Babies are born with few myelinated axons. As the baby grows, the extent of myelination is based on experience.
Experiences and repetition, especially during the sensitive periods, are critical to establish more efficient connections and support the healthy development of the brain.
How home and daycare environments support sensitive periods
- Let each child engage in what interests her most at each moment.
- Give the child the time to repeat the activity and help only when needed.
- Don’t expect all children to learn at the same rate.
- Teachers and carers should observe the child and guide each of them according to each child’s interests.
- Provide a safe and prepared environment that is filled with interesting age-related activities, and where the child has the freedom to explore without interruption.
Tip: Observe the child to spot a sensitive period and provide according to her interests (not yours).
Note: What happens if a child misses a sensitive period?
“Neuroscientific research has identified that children facing deprivation or a lack of stimulation in particular areas during sensitive periods for development will have a deficit in that particular area of brain function. However, research has also supported the idea of plasticity in the brain. Given that the human brain can adapt and even produce new neurons over its lifespan, learning and a strengthening of connections within the human brain occur throughout one’s lifespan.” Blakemore & Frith, 2005.
So missing out on appropriate experiences within sensitive periods means harder work to learn a skill later in life. Is like learning a language when you are older; you can still do it, but it may require a bit (or a lot) more of effort.
For example, during the first months of life, babies recognise sounds related to all languages, but by the end of the first year, they remember only the ones related to the languages they are exposed to.
“Because low-level circuits mature early and high-level circuits mature later, different kinds of experiences are critical at different ages for optimal brain development, a concept called age-appropriate experience. Soon after birth, basic sensory, social, and emotional experiences are essential for optimizing the architecture of low-level circuits. At later ages, more sophisticated kinds of experiences are critical for shaping higher-level circuits.” National Scientific Council on the Developing Child, 2007.
More importantly, in not stressful or traumatic environments, where the child is loved and accepted, it is improbable that she will not get the inputs she needs for healthy brain development.
Fact 3: Executive functions develop alongside maturation of the prefrontal cortex
The pre-frontal cortex (PFC) is the area of the brain behind the forehead.
Executive functions of the PFC include self-control, attention, problem-solving, planning, reasoning, creativity and flexibility. These functions develop exponentially in the pre-school years.
All activities that have social, emotional and physical ingredients train executive functions.
How home and daycare environments encourage executive functions
- Children usually can´t sit still. This is because the ‘top-down’ ability to inhibit movement develops alongside other executive functions.
- Several studies support the interdependency between narrative skills and executive functions. Children get to practice attention, focus and resist distraction when listening to a story. Similarly, those skills help a child construct a story on their own, from pictures or ideas.
- In some daycare classrooms where there is only one material or toy or play with, children need to be patient and wait for their turn: in doing so they practice self-control.
- In most group activities, physical movement is linked with a sense of belonging, for example, a walk in the forest or walking on the line in a group.
- Several materials developed by Dr Maria Montessori (a childhood educator) train the executive functions. For example, the binomial cube is excellent for developing flexible thinking.
Tip: activities with social, emotional and physical components like martial arts, dance, theatre or circus groups are a right way of training executive functions. Go out for a walk or a bike ride with your child!
“School readiness and learning achievement across the content areas and grades rely on Executive Function processes, which is why these skills should be promoted and trained in early childhood programs and schools”. Sabine Kubesch and colleagues, 2009.
Fact 4: Stress affects brain development and executive functions
Prolonged adversity in the absence of a caring adult disrupts healthy brain development.
The PFC is very sensitive to stress, as well as sleep deprivation, sadness, loneliness or being physically unfit.
While positive stress (like meeting a new adult, or a new environment) is an important and necessary aspect of healthy development, chronic toxic stress caused by extreme situations (like poverty, abuse or severe maternal depression) adversely affects the healthy development of the brain.
One primary stress sources in children and young adults during the school years is the focus on achieving high grades and qualifications. Children worry about not being smart enough and not succeeding in school or life.
How children can bypass the stress related to learning
- The inner motivation to learn is more rewarding than learning to pass an exam, and in many cases gives better academic results. Ideally, the principal objective of education should be to encourage curiosity and independent learning, not grades.
- Children should not be expected to perform in a standardised way. Every child learns on her rhythm and interests.
- Each child should be respected as she is, and her interests should be acknowledged and encouraged.
- Chaos is a source of stress. Classrooms and spaces that are beautiful, not overloaded and kept in order are calming to the senses and thus helps diminish stress.
Tip: Always encourage an effort-mentality to approach goals. More than achievements, effort should be praised. Always tell your child: you do not know how to do it, yet. But you will do, with practice. Invariably discipline your child from a loving and calm perspective.
“Adverse caregiving experiences can affect brain structures and function, and these may in turn impact on psychological and emotional development.” McCrory and Viding, 2010.
Fact 5: Mirror neurons help a child learn by imitation
Watching an activity has almost the same effect on the brain as doing it.
This means that the brain learns by watching, it is part of the preparation to perform the activity.
In brain scanning images, researchers found that the same areas of the brain were active in the person that was doing the activity as well as in the person watching it.
Mirror neurons exist in the premotor cortex of monkey, but neuroscientists are still trying to find out whether they exist in humans, where they are, and what exactly it is they do. Mirror neurons are fascinating but we’re only in the early stages of learning about their role in learning.
Role patterns have a significant implication for a child’s development. Children learn by reproducing what they see. Their brain is getting ready to replicate what they observed.
How mirror neurons might be in action during early child development
- In some daycare facilities, children are welcome to watch other children as they work with any material or activity. Since there is (usually) only one or a few units of a material of each kind when they want to use it, and it is not free at the moment, they need to wait, but they can watch while the other child uses it.
- Parents, caregivers, teachers or facilitators are crucial as a role model for the child.
Tip: Be the adult you want your child to become.
Fact 6: Working memory lays the foundation for more complex functions like language
Working memory is a temporary note in the brain, like the instructions for baking a cake that you forget afterwards.
Also considered one of the brain’s executive functions, working memory is the ability to process new information that a child needs for performing a task, like following a series of steps.
How to train working memory
Several materials and activities specially designed for children require that the child uses her working memory. For example:
- Matching colour tablets at a distance by keeping the requested colour in mind.
- Retrieving a specified quantity of beads from across the room based on only verbal instructions.
- The constructive triangle exercises.
- Any matching game like the colour box.
Tip: Give the child short instructions and time to follow them on her own.
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Fact 7: Cognition is linked to movement.
Learning is not only a brain activity, learning is a whole-body task.
Movement is controlled in the brain by the motor cortex together with many other regions, through connections that develop as a child moves and explores her world. This explains why children who get less opportunity to move, show poor school readiness.
“It’s truly astonishing that the dominant model for formal learning is still “sit and git.” It’s not just astonishing; it’s embarrassing.” Eric Jensen
How home and daycare environments support physical activity
- Give the child activities that require hands-on manipulation of the materials. The learning experience is practical.
- Understand that learning is an active, enjoyable task with direct physical experience.
- Understand that there are biological reasons why it is complicated for a child to sit and listen.
- Children need time to explore and freedom of movement in a prepared environment.
Tip: Children and babies need the freedom to move. Give them opportunities and be prepared if you are in a situation where they won’t be able to run, escalate and jump. Understand it is a physical and developmental need, not misbehaviour.
“The child’s intelligence can develop to a certain level without the help of his hand. But if it develops with his hand, then the level that it reaches is higher, and the child’s character is stronger.” Dr Maria Montessori
Fact 8: Each brain is unique
Even identical twins are different.
Experiences, nutrition, relationships and genes shape the brain of a child. Even the neurons of identical twins have variations due to genetic processes like “jumping genes” that modify the inherited genes and their expression. Genetic changing events like this are highly active in brains during development.
How home and daycare environments support the uniqueness of each child
- Respect each child and encourage her interests.
- By observation, teachers, parents and carers can learn about the needs and interests of each child, and provide accordingly.
Tip: Give each child according to her needs and interests, do not make comparisons or try to unify siblings.
“Follow the child.” Dr Maria Montessori
Fact 9: Emotions and relationships shape the growing brain
Emotional well-being and social skills provide a strong foundation for developing cognitive abilities.
Emotional, cognitive and physical capacities that develop in the early childhood years are the essential foundation for success in later adult life.
Emotions support the development of executive functions when they are well regulated, but interfere with them when they are out of control, impeding attention and decision-making.
In the long run, reduced emotional regulation in early childhood affects a child’s social capacities and the ability to adapt to school.
The development of emotional capabilities run along with more evident skills like mobility, thinking and communication.
Therefore, it is essential to pay attention to a child’s emotions, and it should be considered a fundamental part of her brain development. It is impressive to see how children actively react to emotional changes in their parent or carer.
In some cases, learning to manage emotions can be harder than learning to count or read, and it can even be a sign of future psychological problems.
How home and daycare environments support emotions and relationships
- Attend to each child’s feelings.
- In classrooms with a mix of ages, children learn to respect other children by observing and taking turns.
- Set tasks such as setting the table, dusting or keeping the classroom and bedroom tidy give the child a sense of belonging and responsibility. They learn to be useful to their family and friends.
Tip: Always pay attention to all emotions. It may not be relevant to you, but it is for your child. All feelings are allowed, but not all behaviours are. Correct the action, not the emotion.
Important note: you want your child to be able to understand and explain when there is something that hurts her or that she disagrees.
“Healthy development can not separate cognitive development from social and emotional development.” Jack P. Shonkoff.
Fact 10: Creativity is the result of network brain work
Brains become creative when allowed to explore.
Creativity is different from fantasy. Creativity connects seemingly non-connected concepts. Creativity is the capacity of thinking outside the box.
From a neuroscience perspective, the creative process is the result of many parts of the brain working together as a network. For example, similar areas of the brain get activated during musical training and mathematical processing. Early musical experiences are also a support for language development.
In a recent study, fMRI scans of successful engineers showed a characteristic brain activation pattern when creative problem-solving.
A creative environment during childhood not only contributes to better mental health, but lays foundation for lifelong creativity.
How home and daycare environments support creativity and exploration
- Learn from one another and one’s personal experience. Give children get as much help as needed, and as little help as possible. This means they “discover” how things are done, rather than being passively told how.
- Give freedom to explore ideas and relationships between seemingly different areas of learning or disciplines.
- Children who learn to solve problems become independent learners.
- In the process of discovering how things work (from an adult perspective), children come up with new applications that always surprise the adult.
Tip: Always let the child do by herself what she can do alone. Do not take away from her the pleasure of discovering how the world works. Give your child real-life high-quality material to experiment.
“The most innovative entrepreneurs were very lucky to have been raised in an atmosphere where inquisitiveness was encouraged. We were struck by the stories they told about being sustained by people who cared about experimentation and exploration. Sometimes these people were relatives, but sometimes they were neighbours, teachers or other influential adults.” Hal Gregersen, in “How do innovators think.”
Growing a human brain is rather like constructing a home. It starts with laying the foundations, framing the rooms, wiring the electrical system and continues with distinctive features that give the house its individuality. The foundation of a home may not be visible when you look at a house, but every part of the house depends upon it.
Just like a good foundation supports a secure and robust home, the first years of a child’s life shape her personality and cognitive, emotional and social skills.
It is in our hands to understand and nurture growing minds. Research in neuroscience, cognitive development and education are providing more evidence on the importance of the first few years in a little person’s life.
We can learn from the current knowledge about a child early years and know that observation and respect are vital to understanding and supporting children’s growing minds. They are also the framework for healthier and happier human relationships.
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Mariana Rickmann is a biomedical scientist turned writer, mother of two girls (with her third girl coming soon) and someone who has been passionate about nature and science since she was a little girl. You can find Mariana via her blog: www.marianarickmann.com LinkedIN: www.linkedin.com/in/
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- Diamond, A., & Ling, D. S. (2016). Conclusions about interventions, programs, and approaches for improving executive functions that appear justified and those that, despite much hype, do not.
- Editors John Oates, Annette Karmiloff-Smith and Mark H. Johnson (2012). Developing Brains.
- Eric Jensen (2005). Teaching with the Brain in Mind.
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- Center on the Developing Child, Harvard University (2007). The Science of Early Childhood Development (InBrief)
- Fred H. Gage and Alysson R. Muotri (2012). What Makes Each Brain Unique.
- Travis, F., & Lagrosen, Y. (2014). Creativity and Brain-Functioning in Product Development Engineers: A Canonical Correlation Analysis.
- Scott Barry Kaufman (2013). The Real Neuroscience of Creativity.
- National Scientific Council on the Developing Child (2004). Children’s Emotional Development Is Built into the Architecture of Their Brains: Working Paper No. 2.
- Kubesch S., et al (2009). A 30-Minute Physical Education Program Improves Students Executive Attention.
- McCrory, E., & Viding, E. (2010). The neurobiology of maltreatment and adolescent violence.
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About Dr Sarah
I’m an Oxford University-educated neuroscientist, presenter of ABC Catalyst, director of The Neuroscience Academy, and author of The Women's Brain Book. The neuroscience of health, hormones and happiness.
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Such a great article. Definitely going to share and quote this article. I strive to be an adult that models the kind of lifestyle and mindset I would like my child to have. Every fact made so much sense to me, and I can see how some of the things I did when my child was an infant was intuitively the best thing I could have done even though at the time, I didn’t really have the science to back me up. Thanks a lot for creating this and I look forward to reading more of the same.
Great guidelines for raising children with healthy brains. I also like the idea of plasticity that you mentioned, that if we don’t get the perfect childhood we can still overcome early setbacks if we choose to.
Fantastic article. This reminds me of the circle of security model of understanding infant and parent attachment by following the childs cues, tuning into their emotions and responding to their attachment needs. It assists to build the foundation of the child’s emerging self so that they can master self exploration and build on their interests and strengths