By the time kids put on their first school uniform, they’ve already learned some of the most important skills in life. Early childhood education starts at home.
One of the most incredible things in life is how rapidly young brains learn and grow.
From birth and into their first few years, kids are making trillions of neural connections (synapses) with the billions of neurons (brain cells) they’re born with. These connections are different parts of the brain communicating with one another in response to anything kids see, touch, hear, taste and feel, enabling the brain and body to do just about everything.
At least one million new neural connections are made every second, more than at any other time in their life.
“the ability for the brain to reorganise and adapt, is greatest in the first years of life and decreases with age.” Centre of the Developing Child — Harvard University
By the age of 5, most kids have created the majority of the neural connections responsible for how they problem solve, make decisions, interact and socialise and cope with stress.
What ultimately makes kids and adults act and think is based on which neural connections are strengthened through reinforcement and which connections become less important (otherwise known as ‘pruning’). Pruning is a necessary process in order for the brain to become more efficient.
‘Practice makes perfect’ is how neural connections work. The more an experience is repeated, the stronger the connection. As the brain is developing, those strengthened connections are used to build new connections to integrate different parts of the brain, allowing kids to think, move and speak in more complex ways as they get older e.g kids learning to walk will most often learn how to crawl first.
When it comes to the more academic side of things, we can prepare their minds for ‘learning’ by creating and strengthening the foundations of attention by repeating tasks to help focus, prioritise, control impulses and block out distractions.
The process kids go through of strengthening and pruning neural connections is largely responsible for defining their personality, behaviours and potential skills that determine who they will become and how they navigate the world on their own.
“This is when a child becomes the person they are going to be. It is when they learn appropriate behaviour, boundaries, empathy and many other important social skills that will remain with them for life” — Madeleine Portwood, Educational Psychologist and head of clinical services, Ebdaah, Dubai
To ensure our little ones have the best chance of being healthy and happy later on in life, we need to positively encourage their brain development. There is a lot we can do when kids are in this exciting but vulnerable stage of growing and learning.
What can I do to support their learning?
The most important things we can do is to allow our little ones to grow and learn in a safe, nurturing and positive environment.
Touch plays a huge part in brain development. A large part of the nervous system is devoted to sensory touch stimulation which has widespread connections to other important parts of the brain including the emotional amygdala and pituitary gland. A parent or caregiver who lovingly and regularly hugs and connects with their kids triggers the release of the hormone oxytocin from the pituitary gland which can help them feel more calm, establishes bonding and creates trust. Paul Zak describes wonderfully in this TED Talk what oxytocin does to our brains and why it’s really important for our relationships and society.
Paul Zak aka ‘Dr. Love’ describing why we need 8 hugs a day
Socialisation has incredible benefits including improved cardiovascular health, stronger immune systems and better academic performances at school.
Engaging and interacting with kids have huge benefits on their brain development. Since most of our interactions are non verbal, we can teach kids how to read visual cues and nuances of body language simply through spending time with them. An environment where kids are engaged in positive interactions between their parents and their friends is also a great way to teach them about healthy social skills.
Creating a positive home environment.
Have you ever been told you act or speak just like one of your parents? When it comes to kids, the best things we can do for them is to display positive behaviours you would love to see them emulate later on in life. Who you are, what you say and eat, and how you behave will influence who they will be as an adult.
Kids are actively and passively learning all the time.
What allows them to learn and pick things up so quickly in their early development phase is largely via mirror neurons. Italian neurophysiologist Giacomo Rizzolatti discovered this subset of motor neurons in the prefrontal cortex (the part of the brain responsible for higher cognitive functions like making decisions, problem solving, risk assessment and helping us judge what is socially acceptable behaviour). Mirror neurons are essentially ‘imitation’ neurons and allow kids to create neural connections through observation. They’re responsible for things like learning motor skills and developing empathy for others, a great example of mirror neurons in action is the ‘contagious yawn’.
Since the frontal lobe matures well into the 20’s, kids imitate those around them, relying on mirror neurons for their survival while parts of the brain are still developing.
How Mirror neurons work. TED Talk by VS Ramachandran
What can you do at home?
- Lots of hugs. They allow kids to build positive neural connections by reducing stress and establishing trust.
- Singing, dancing, reading, playing and talking to them all engage different parts of their brain, helping to build resilience and learn important social skills for later on in life.
- Get your little ones in the kitchen with you. This is a great opportunity to learn visual cues, simple measurements, practice motor skills and show them the importance of cooking and connecting with their food and nutrition.
- Have the family eat together and encourage discussions around how everyone is feeling. Kids thrive when they’re able to talk about what’s going on in their world. Meal time is all about creating a space where your little one feels encouraged to interact, share and learn from older people in their lives.
- Be a positive ‘social’ role model by inviting your friends around. Your little one will pick up how to interact with others and will see the importance of having a healthy social life. Socialising is really important for little ones and the more interactions they get, the better they are in the playground.
- Give kids some household responsibilities. Help them to understand they’re a part of the family and what they do contributes to the smooth running of the home. Instilling this now can lead to carrying a sense of responsibility, inclusion and autonomy throughout their lives.
We all want our little ones to have the best start. By giving them a safe and encouraging environment to learn and express themselves, you will be supporting them through the most important phase in their brain development, leading to happier and healthier kids.