Brain Development in Your Child’s Early Years
Did you know that from the time your child is born until age five, their brain develops more than any other time in life? So much so, in fact, that by the time your child reaches kindergarten, 90% of your child’s brain is already developed.
Compare this to how our bodies grow: at birth, we are merely a few pounds and we keep growing until well into our teens, where we finally reach our adult height. If our bodies grew like our brain does, a child entering kindergarten would only be a few inches off their final height, with only 10% more growth to go.
This is why it is so important to ensure that our children have plenty of opportunities to learn in their first five years, as well as the right type of stimulation.
The quality of your child’s experiences at that stage will shape how their brain develops for the rest of their lives. Your newborn baby already has all of the neurons (brain cells) they will have for the rest of their lives, but learning depends on those neurons connecting to one another.
If you look at the picture on the left, you will see a synapse (or connection) between two neurons. It is that synapse, and thousands of other synapses that your child forms while playing, learning and interacting with the world around them, that your child learns. The more synapses, the more your child’s brain has established learning pathways. The more brain cells connected, the higher your child’s ability to learn for life. It is the connection between your child’s brain cells that really make the brain work.
Your child’s early years are a crucial time for making these connections. , which is more than any other time in life. These connections allow your child to learn to walk, jump, run, speak, read, write, reason, understand emotions, and basically anything else a fully developed brain can do. Brain development builds on itself as connections link with each-other in more complex ways. For example, a child will learn to walk first, then learn to run, jump, dance, or other activities that are connected to learning to walk. A child who is given plenty of opportunities to make connections, will continue to build upon these connections, and is able to move, think and speak in more complex ways over the years.
Your child’s first years are the very best time to develop the connections they need to be capable, healthy and successful adults. The connections needed for important higher-level activities like self-regulation, problem-solving, motivation and communication are all formed in the early years. It is much more difficult for those connections to be formed later in life, and sometimes, it is almost impossible. For example, learning to talk. If a child is not exposed to language during the early years, it is believed, based on case studies such as Genie’s and Victor of Aveyron, that if a child does not learn to speak during early childhood, they will not be able to acquire a first language for the rest of their lives.
How Does My Child Build Brain Connections?
Starting from birth, and maybe even in the womb, children develop brain connections through their everyday experiences. These connections are built through interactions with their families and the people they are exposed to (teachers, extended family, etc.) as well as by discovering the world around them (trees or birds they see, different textures and smells they are exposed to and can interact with, etc.) your child’s daily quality experiences will determine which brain connections are made, and which will last for a lifetime. This is why the quality of care and education they receive in the first five years directly determines how much and how well they will learn for the rest of their lives.
How Can I Help My Child Build Brain Connections?
The best way to help is by being responsive. From birth, your child serves up invitations to engage with you. Babies do it by cooing, smiling and crying, for example. Toddlers can communicate their needs more directly. Regardless of your child’s age, think of each of these invitations as an opportunity for you to be responsive to your child’s needs. It is called “serve and return” – they serve, you return. You will also notice that when you serve, they learn to return! Keep in mind your return to their serve is fundamental to the wiring of your child’s brain.
By giving attention when your child “serves” you the opportunity, by responding and interacting with your child, you are hugely helping to build your child’s brain. Here are other times you are helping your child build strong neural connections:
- When you converse with them
Instead of talking to them, talk with them, have a conversation, invite them to participate in that conversation. Sometimes we tend to keep it a bit too simple and most of our conversations with baby tend to become orders that don’t invite your child to respond (pick up your toys, wash your hands, come and eat dinner). Instead, no matter how young they are, make it an engaging conversation that invites them to participate (Would you like to help setting the table for dinner? How many plates should we set? Will we need spoons? Cups? Which cups do you think we should use? The tall ones or the shorter ones?) – this not only greatly enriches your child’s vocabulary (neural connections), it also teaches them to make choices (neural connections) learn math by comparing and counting (neural connections) and learn to contribute to your daily life which is very important for your child’s self-esteem and sense of self-worth. The more you get used to speaking with your child like you speak with your spouse, friends or co-workers, the more your child is making – you guessed it – neural connections.
- When you play with them
Again, be very open-ended and inviting during play, and ask questions or invite suggestions. Find activities that invite your child to use their imagination and creativity, like the ones you will find on this site (here)
- When you sing with them
You can teach your child new songs (vocabulary, music, gross motor skills if you dance too!) and you can teach them rhymes and fingerplays, which are great for learning at a young age, as your child is actively following along.
- When you read with them
When your child is very young, you will be doing most of the reading, but you can also play with them while reading by using what is on the page to teach them words or repetitive actions. For example, you see bubbles on a page of the book, and stop with excitement to say “I see bubbles! Look! Do you want to pop the bubbles? Let’s pop the bubbles (then direct their finger towards each of the bubbles saying “Pop! Pop! Pop! Pop!) all of these explorations are part of learning to read, so don’t worry too much about getting to the end of the story. When your child is older, you can take turns choosing the books (or choose one each) or reading to each-other. This article I wrote will give you more tips for reading with your child and you will find a few more articles, depending on the age of your child, here.
- When you go on walks and explore nature together
This article [https://www.parentingwithnatacha.com/great-outdoor-activities-for-the-body-and-the-brain/] can give you ideas and tell you more about the importance of connecting with nature for children and the whole family. I have also included a few more articles about playing outdoors in this collection
- When you include them in your daily routines
Cooking, cleaning, laundry and baking are all activities that can be done with your child, and that your child can greatly learn from. They will learn S.T.E.M. when preparing a recipe with you, as well as vocabulary and essential self-help skills. They will learn math when sorting laundry and figuring out its sequence (first we separate colours, then we add the right amount of soap for the load, then we wait 40 minutes while it gets washed, then we put it in the dryer, then we fold it when it is dry, then we sort it) and fine motor skills when helping you fold. For more activities you can do with your baby at home, have a look at this article and a few more in that collection.
By talking, reading, singing, exploring and working together from the day your baby is born, and by responding to their “serves” consistently, you are helping your child form new neural connections. Also, give them opportunities to explore their physical world at their own pace, and provide a safe, dependable and nurturing environment for your child.
This applies to all the people your child spends time with, from grandma to their teachers at school. Your child’s relationships with adults in their life are very important influences on their brain development. The more loving, responsive and dependable, the more your child’s brain can flourish, and as a result, the more successful your child will be not only in school but in life.