According to Nurturing Habits of Mind in Early Childhood, there is a misconception that brain growth stops at birth, after which brain cells die throughout one’s lifetime; which is doubtful.
In fact, before neuroimaging most neuroscientists believed that only young brains were plastic, or changeable. They believed not only that all the brain’s memory-holding cells (neurons) were present at birth but also that all or most of the connections between these neurons developed in the very first year of childhood and then becomes permanent. However, now, we know that lifelong growth of the supporting and connecting cells enriching the communication between memory-holding cells, allied with associated increases in cognition and social-emotional skill sets, actively continues far beyond that first year.
In the first year or two after birth, most of the brain’s development and activity is programmed for automatic, involuntary, reflexive, and reactive behaviors and information acquisition to ensure survival and fulfill children’s basic needs. This time of their lives and brain development is exciting and is at accelerated rate with enhanced responsiveness that constructs new connections between neurons. Also, the rapid growth phase happens between ages 2 and 7, as their brains dramatically establish the wiring conducive to information storage, understanding, and communication. However, each child develops at a unique pace.
These are, in actuality, critical periods in a child’s overall development which happen in spurts. One begins at the age of 2 and the other starts in adolescence. During these periods, the connections (called synapses) between brain cells (or neurons) double. For example, your two-year-old has twice as many synapses as a grown person! That’s why these early years are a prime time for kids to observe everything around them, learn and grown. In the ages of 2-7, kids have the ability to learn faster than any other period in life. Their brain development matters immensely both before and after that span, of course, but it’s especially important in those years between 2-7.
Albert Einstein is one great example of it. When he was in bed all day from an illness, his father gave him a compass. For Einstein, it was a mysterious device that sparked his curiosity in science. Soon after, Einstein’s mother, who was a talented pianist, gave Einstein a violin. These two gifts challenged Einstein’s brain in distinctive ways at just the right time.
How can we help in their brain development? To do so, we can:
Encourage love for learning
It is essential for kids to enjoy the process of learning instead of focusing on performance. Both educators and parents can emphasize the joys of trying new activities and learning something novel. They need to help children understand that mistakes are a welcome, normal part of learning.
This age group is a crucial time to establish a growth mindset—the belief is that talents and abilities are developed through effort instead of being innately fixed. Not only this, educators should avoid labelling children or making universal statements about their ability. They should emphasize persistence and create safe spaces for learning. Also show enthusiasm over the learning process, doing so would generate a love for learning in them.
Rather focusing on result, focus on breadth
During this phase of brain development, it’s advisable to emphasize on the breadth of skill development over depth and result. Exposing kids to a wide variety of activities lays a foundation for developing skills in a range of fields and ,is the best time to engage children in music, reading, sports, math, art, science, and languages; because at this age kids’ brains are at developing stage and are ready to soak in a wide range of skill sets. In a nutshell, we may term this phase as “sampling period,” as Einstein calls it, is integral. This is a window during which develop children’s range. And there is plenty of time for them to specialize later.
Focus on Emotional Intelligence
Often, teachers neglect emotional intelligence of their students. They fail to understand the advantages of learning during this first critical period of brain development should extend to interpersonal skills such as kindness, empathy, and teamwork.
According to the book, The whole-brain child by Daniel Siegel and Tina Payne Bryson Empathy begins with acknowledging one’s feelings. They suggest helping children in this age group to first label their emotions (“I feel sad”) and then tell the story about what made them feel that way (“I feel sad because I wanted ice cream and you said no”). Once children start practicing labelling emotions, educators can start asking questions that encourage them to consider others’ feelings. The other way to encourage care for others is to include children in what adults do for others, for example, allowing them to help in household chores.
Don’t think early child education as merely a precursor to “Real” education
Already mentioned, at this critical age, children’s brains uniquely absorb information. In fact, several research shows that some skills cannot be learned nearly as well as it could be learnt at this first critical period of brain development. For example, in a research, it shows that children in this age range are best suited to learn the patterns of language development, enabling them to master a second language to the same level as a native language. However, once a child reaches age 8, their language learning proficiency decreases, and second languages are not spoken as well as native ones. The same age effect is found when child learns musical abilities such as perfect pitch.
For example, Albert Einstein’s parents did not register him in physics lessons. His father included him in his work as an engineer. While, his mother signed him up for violin lessons. And both of the activities worked to develop his young mind holistically. Hence, we may say, it is tempting to think of early childhood education as a precursor to “real” education. But these may be the years that matter most. This age is extremely critical for an “overall and proper” brain development of a child.