by Janice Fletcher, Associate Professor Child, Family, and Consumer Studies, University of Idaho, Moscow, Idaho
The first years of life hold the most critical periods for brain development. A hundred billion brain cells develop in the nine months that a mother’s womb nurtures a developing person. When the child is born, these billions of brain cells, called neurons, begin to connect to help a child build a useful brain. These connections are called synapses. The number of synapses multiplies to make trillions of connections that form a “map” with increasingly more complex connections. The network of connections influences intellectual capacity, memory, problem solving, and language. Most of these connections are made in early childhood with the first year being remarkably busy!
There is no longer a question of “if” it is helpful to provide a stimulating environment for children. Research tells us that it is not only helpful if you do, but that a child is robbed of optimal brain development, if you do not. The development of the brain cells is human physiology, but development of many of the synapses is influenced by experiences. The brain cells form the framework, but the connections made in childhood determine what happens to that framework.
These first years are the period when the brain has the greatest hope for growth and construction. The synapses are strengthened by exposure to experiences. Experience provides stimulation that kick starts development of the synapses. Expanding from that base then develops more complex connections. Research tells us that synapses that are not stimulated are eliminated. They are pruned. They die. They wither. They are no longer there for use by the child.
When children are stimulated, neurotransmitters fire in the brain, creating synapses. When children relax, brain cells work with great efficiency. When children are stressed, cortisol, a “stress” hormone, washes over the brain. This “stress” hormone causes death of brain cells.
Children who receive loving care and strong attachments to others have low levels of cortisol. The implication of this information is that caregivers must give attention to providing relaxed environments and warm and loving attachments between children and adults. Key points are to hold children often, make soft places for them, and to be liberal with stroking and caressing to decrease stress hormones. Smile, hold, and caress them to give their brains a chance to be bathed in the comfort of warm and supportive adults.
There are windows of opportunity for “wiring” the brain. If the connections are not made during these windows, the child will have fewer connections or no connections for developing strength in that area. As children progress through these periods of whirlwind synapses building, adults should provide stimulation that connects experiences to everyday routines, then expand a bit. The brain works from simple connections to develop complex synapses networks. For example, synapses for developing language are connecting in the one to three year period. This means the child needs stimulation that provides interesting and varied listening and speaking experiences. Basic to this is for the caregiver to talk and listen. Children need face to face talk as their synapses network. Engage the child, and be engaged by the child in a dance of conversation. When a child coos or utters a syllable, repeat it. Then elaborate on it. When children hear your words and make sounds, brain connections are made. Talk slowly. Pause. Wait for a response. Give time to respond. Note where you accent words. Change the tone and inflections of your voice. Sing. Play music and sing along. Children need to make sounds and feel the delight and results that making sounds brings. Sound helps develop brain connections that help a child respond to others. Synapses are strongest when the learning has a function. Words that get results are stimulating. The thrill that accompanies asking why, what, and when questions may come from a synapse connecting.
Choose activities that give children opportunities to make choices using memory. Toddlers and preschoolers respond to sorting, matching, and classifying games. Examples are sorting, naming, and assigning colors or numbers to common items such as socks, silverware, blocks, and pictures. Games that stimulate memory give the brain exercise in planning. Classics such as peekaboo, go find it, and who is missing give children chances to remember. Lotto games stimulate children to “plan backwards.” Decision- making builds connections of thought. Music learning stimulates problem solving. When music training is begun between the ages of three and ten years, the brain develops connections for spatial orientation and classification. Fill the environment with toys and activities that have a cause and effect of sound and action. Show children how to listen to the sounds when they tap on a bowl with spoons and or on pot lids with wooden spoons. Present the sounds of the xylophone as individual notes or as trills. Fill film canisters with different items. Tape the lids shut and shake, shake, shake.
Development of social skills is dependent on synapses that help a child understand social references. As children engage each other and interact with adults, they develop references for what to expect from other people and how to treat others. Pat a cake, for example, is a game that helps to build brain connections for turn taking. Pointing out that a child can look at another child’s face to see whether the child is happy or sad helps build social referents in the child’s synapses. The impact of the research on brain development suggests that we educate ourselves about the windows of opportunity for brain development. We must provide warm, responsive individual caregiving. A stimulating environment with many and varied things to do is essential to keep those synapses healthy and alive.
Parents and care providers must be aware of and responsive to the characteristics of child development. Early childhood professionals must keep up with the research. Take a child development course. Read current books and journals. Learn about the mounting scientific support for nurturing children’s brain development. Take advantage of the opportunities to teach others about how to stimulate children’s brains.
Hold parent information sessions to talk about brain development. Help parents know what to expect from their children and ways to stimulate their brains. Encourage parents to receive early and comprehensive prenatal care. Distribute information about prenatal nutrition and the effects of alcohol and drug use on the developing brain of the child.
Recent brain research is remarkable information for those who care for and educate children. It tells us that the things we do or DO NOT DO affect the potential of our children.
Begley, S. 1997 How to build a baby’s brain. Newsweek, Special Edition, Spring-Summer, 28-32.
Shore, R. 1997 Rethinking the brain: New insights into early development. Families and Work Institute, New York, New York.
Jabs. C. 1996 Working Mother, 19, 24-28.
Newberger, J 1997 New brain development research-a wonderful window of opportunity to build public support for early childhood education!, Young Children, 52:4, 4-9.
Reprinted with permission from the National Network for Child Care – NNCC. Janice Fletcher. (2004). Making Connections: Helping Children Build Their Brains. Storrs, CT: National Network for Child Care at the University of Connecticut Cooperative Extension System.