Every teacher is unique. And if you're a teacher or a parent of our youngest most impressionable children, you hold a unique position in their lives.
You also hold a unique place in creating history whether you realize it or not. That's because recent brain research on children ages birth-3 is letting us in on the deepest secrets of how the brain lives, loves, and learns and the results are astounding!
In the first few years of life, more than 1 million new neural connections form every second. After this period of rapid proliferation, connections are reduced through a process called pruning, which allows brain circuits to become more efficient. In light of these findings, focussing on early childhood only makes sense. -Center for the Developing Child, Harvard University-
It turns out that things are happening way earlier than we've ever imagined. So if you're a teacher, parent, grandparent, or caregiver of any kind, please know that what you do on a daily basis, the things you repeat and model over and over again will be the things that are most likely to stick with them forever. That's how important you are in their lives and therefore how important you are to the future.
When children are in their earliest years they learn how to learn. They also learn how they feel about learning. That's because, at this stage, most of the learning connections are being formed in the amygdala which is considered the seat of emotions. How important do you think that is?
I recently read a scholarly article that emphasizes the importance of looking at brain research as we make decisions about the experiences our youngest children receive. Here's a direct quote from that article. (Stone, Lindsey 1999)
According to Simmons and Sheehan (1997), “A child’s potential is determined in the early years-from the first moments of life to countless hours spent in daycare. These are the years when we create the promise of a child’s future. Unfortunately, according to the 1993 report of the National Education Goals Panel, at least 50 percent of America’s infants and toddlers begin life encumbered with insurmountable obstacles and without the crucial assistance needed for later school success (Carnegie Corporation, 1994). In addition, the National Education Goals Panel reported that a grave number of children under 3 are challenged by one or more of the following major risk factors: “a) inadequate prenatal care, b) isolated parents, c) substandard child care, d) poverty, and e) insufficient attention” (Carnegie Corporation, 1994, p. 1). These alarming statistics symbolize the adversity that endangers the development of America’s children (Carnegie Corporation, 1994). Each year, as a result of these staggering statistics, the ”American taxpayers reach deep into their pocket[s] to meet the costs, both direct and indirect, of policies that are based on remediation rather than prevention” (Carnegie Corporation, 1994, P. 9). -Stone, Lindsey-
It's a long quote but I thought it was important to include it all because it has such important implications.
The interesting thing that's coming out in the newest brain research is that play, running, and dreaming, are some of the best brain stimulants for creating brain connections. (Pica 2021) That makes sense since human beings are all born with a strong, natural attraction to both learning and play.
What doesn't make sense to early childhood scholars is the common practice of making our youngest children sit longer and listen more. Many uninformed but well-meaning people think that practicing higher-level skills earlier is a good idea for children.
Misinformed teachers or administrators may also ask very young children to reproduce copies from examples of art when they should be scribbling, experiencing, and mixing colors. Or even force them to sit and color mimeographed pictures of Christmas trees instead of taking them out to play in the snow.
I've heard many young teachers brag about having 2-year-olds sit for 20-30 minute circle times. I agree that you can get them to sit that long (or at least some of them), but I absolutely disagree that this is the best way to teach attention to children this young.
That's why the highest quality care and education programs in the world like Reggio, Montessori, High Scope, and Waldorf, all contain a lot of active play and learning guided by educated and experienced facilitators and teachers who emphasize observations followed by multi-sensory learning experiences designed for success and intrigue.
The study of attention is a very important part of current brain research. Scientists are discovering that attention is learned through meaningful circles of communication with responsive and loving caregivers. (Greenspan, Lewis 2000 ) These kinds of interactions are only possible with low teacher/child ratios and well-supported teachers that form the type of emotional spark needed to create the types of brain connections we want. This YouTube video is a great example of that reciprocal communication.
Children who aren't allowed enough playtime may easily become bitter about learning because they're being asked to do things that aren't developmentally appropriate (Nueman 2000) like sit or listen too long before they're physically ready. When asked to do these things early, their brains may develop connections for the wrong things like attention-getting behavior, naughtiness, excessive daydreaming, or even plotting ways to escape!
In contrast, when allowed long periods of playtime, young children develop more and deeper brain connections for communication, problem-solving and physical exercise. When done together, these things trigger some of the most efficient learning mechanisms available.
Want to learn more about the brain and how it relates to being the best caregiver possible? Want to be recognized as an elite caregiver among your peers and be the one they come to for information about the brain and how it develops?
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Nanci J Bradley is an early childhood and family educator, author, teacher, family aerobics instructor, and an all-around fun-loving person. She believes in the power of sleep, healthy eating, lifelong learning, and most of all, PLAY! She studied early childhood ed at Triton College and received her BS in education in 1986 from NIU. She received her MA in human development from Pacific Oaks College in 2011. She lives and teaches in Madison WI and is the founder of early childhood rocks!, a non-profit organization dedicated to changing the world through early childhood care and education.
Banaji, Mahzarin R., and Susan A. Gelman. Navigating the Social World What Infants, Children, and Other Species Can Teach Us. Oxford University Press, 2014.
Borba, Michele. Thrivers: The Surprising Reasons Why Some Kids Struggle and Others Shine. G. P. Putnam's Sons, 2022.
“Center on the Developing Child at Harvard University.” Center on the Developing Child at Harvard University, 4 Dec. 2017, https://developingchild.harvard.edu/.
Chen, Yasheng, et al. “More Insights into Early Brain Development through Statistical Analyses of Eigen-Structural Elements of Diffusion Tensor Imaging Using Multivariate Adaptive Regression Splines.” Brain Structure and Function, vol. 219, no. 2, 2013, pp. 551–569., https://doi.org/10.1007/s00429-013-0517-7.
Gramling, Michael. Great Disconnect in Early Childhood Education. Redleaf Press, 2015.
Greenspan, Stanley I., and Nancy Breslau Lewis. Building Healthy Minds: The Six Experiences That Create Intelligence and Emotional Growth in Babies and Young Children. Perseus Pub., 2000.
“Learning & Development: Sand Play - under-Threes.” Nursery World, vol. 2009, no. 6, 2009, https://doi.org/10.12968/nuwa.2009.9.6.1092987.
Lee, Regina, et al. “Effects of an Unstructured Free Play and Mindfulness Intervention on Wellbeing in Kindergarten Students.” International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health, vol. 17, no. 15, 2020, p. 5382., https://doi.org/10.3390/ijerph17155382.
Neuman, Susan B. Developmentally Appropriate Practices for Young Children. National Association of Young Children, 2000.
Pattinson, Samuel. The Whole Brain Child: Guide to Raising a Curious Human Being and Revolutionary Strategies to Nurture Your Child's Developing Mind. Samuel Pattinson, 2020.
Pica, Rae. What If We Taught the Way Children Learn?: More Straight Talk about Bettering Education and Children's Lives. Corwin, a SAGE Company, 2021.
Siegel, Daniel J., and Tina Payne Bryson. The Whole-Brain Child: 12 Revolutionary Strategies to Nurture Your Child's Developing Mind. Brilliance Audio, 2012.
Stone, Sandra J., and Gail Lindsey. “Reviews of Research: Brain Research and Implications for Early Childhood Education.” Childhood Education, vol. 75, no. 2, 1998, pp. 97–100., https://doi.org/10.1080/00094056.1999.10521992.
“Understanding The Upstairs and Downstairs Brain.” MSU Extension, https://www.canr.msu.edu/news/understanding_the_upstairs_and_downstairs_brain.