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Optimal Brain-Boosting Experiences birth-3

We know a lot more about the human brain and its development than we used to. Just take a look at this stunning research from Harvard University.

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, focusing on early childhood only makes sense. -Center for the Developing Child, Harvard University-

Yeah, you read it right, 1 million neural connections per second form during the first few years of life. The biggest question now is, "What should we do about it?"

Harvard University is the home of The Center On The Developing Mind. Their short video on brain architecture can be found, here on my homepage. It's worth the two minutes it takes to view. It conveys a ton of useful information for early childhood advocates, parents, and educators.

One, now famous, Harvard graduate has come to the University of Wisconsin, Madison, and founded The Center For Healthy Minds.

Dr. Davidson is notable not only because he lives and works in my neighborhood but also because his team has studied early childhood teaching and attitudes extensively using yoga and meditation. He's even studied the brain of the Dalai Lama.

Here is some of what his Holiness said to Dr. Davidson. "You've been using the tools of modern neuroscience to investigate fear, anxiety, and depression. Why can't you use those same tools to study kindness and compassion, the positive qualities of life? "

"It was a wake-up call for me to begin to orient our work toward a focus on well-being and the heathy qualities of mind that eventually culminated in the founding of The Center For Investigating Healthy Minds.
One of the aspirations is to enable this work to really live on to produce the kind of change that we so importantly need. What's at stake is nothing short than the flourishing of humanity and the planet. It is absolutely critical that we get along more cooperatively and more compassionately. Dr. Richard Davidson, The Center For The Healthy Mind

As for my own early childhood career, identifying and replicating what's right has always been my focus too. There's so much wrong in the field of early childhood, that I believe we need to look for what is right and good and build on that. We know the effects of neglect, abuse, and bullying on children. It's devastating. But how do we discover what's right?

The short answer is that we need to study more. But as for the earliest years, we do have some evidence-based studies that can guide us. Overall, multi-sensory learning, emotional connection, and positive communication are non-negotiable for mental and cognitive health.

So yes, parents and other early childhood educators are pretty important people in the grand scheme of things. So if you're one of us, take care of yourself. It's the only way to effectively care for others.

So what are we waiting for? What should we do next?

That’s a really good question that I’ve been pondering seriously for most of my 40+ year career in early childhood and parent education. There's so much we shouldn't do, so many things that can be harmful to the developing child. How about focusing on what we're doing right and seeing if we can produce more of it?

"Best Practices" is a common phrase used in early childhood education and other fields. Highlighting and replicating these practices is necessary.

In my opinion, using the term Optimal Brain Boosting Experiences sounds a little more accurate.

One time, 35 or so years ago when I was teaching a course in the basics of childcare to a group of about 25 people who were already working in the field. Most confided in me that they were actually fully in charge of a group of children although they held the title of “assistant teacher”.

One evening I asked a question that wasn’t part of the official curriculum. Their answers were enlightening.

The question was simple. We had discussed “best practices” so I asked them to go around the room and give me one example. I still remember some of their answers. We learned a lot from each other that day. Here are some highlights from what they said.

From center-based care

*We have a sensory table and we change its contents weekly. (this was well before you could order kits for this kind of thing and they had to use their creativity)

*When a 3-year-old isn’t able to play safely around others, I try to notice that he’s spiraling before he loses it. Instead of giving a time-out, I ask him (or tell him) to be my buddy. He holds on to my spiral plastic keyring which is attached to my belt loop. He likes the sensory aspect of the keyring and he moves around the room with me. It gives us time to communicate and possibly solve a problem together. He doesn't see this as a punishment but rather a chance to re-group.

From family childcare,

*I let each child choose a story and read each of them before nap. The story chooser gets the chance to sit on my lap and most of the others crowd around to listen or play quietly on the floor by our feet. When all of the stories are done, we move to the nap room. Sometime during the last of the stories, the younger toddlers end up standing by the gate with blankets pressed up to their faces and thumbs in their mouths waiting to get to their cots.

From home-schoolers

*We built an outdoor “mud kitchen” under a couple of small trees in the backyard. We stocked it with old pots, pans bowls, measuring cups, and wooden spoons. We made pretend pizzas and pies to teach division and used stones and sticks for counting. We used dish tubs to bring in water and added clothespins to hang doll clothes from the tree. We took photos and made books about our adventures including one called “Making Stinky Stew!”

So these are the things that matter, these are the things that build the most efficient and the most compassionate brains. If you have a brain boosting practice you'd like to share, please email me at and your idea might be featured in my blog someday soon! Join us here to stay in touch and get my 22-page slideshow on How To Get Kids To Listen Without Yelling Or Time-Outs! free.

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.

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