Diverse experiences—from play to the arts and social relationships—profoundly shape a young child’s brain development and emotional intelligence.
As a pediatric Therapist I see first-hand how rapidly babies and children develop their skill sets. Their zest for exploration is vast and guiding their curiosity is what supports overall brain growth and functioning.
Children’s brains develop in spurts called critical periods. The first occurs around age 2, with a second one occurring during adolescence. At the start of these periods, the number of connections (synapses) between brain cells (neurons) doubles. Two-year-olds have twice as many synapses as adults. Because these connections between brain cells are where learning occurs, twice as many synapses enable the brain to learn faster than at any other time of life. Therefore, children’s experiences in this phase have lasting effects on their collective development.
This first critical period of brain development begins around age 2 and tappers around age 7. This period provides an important opportunity to lay the foundation for neuro-muscular, communication, cognitive and emotional growth. Three ways to maximize this critical period include encouraging a love of learning, focusing on breadth instead of depth and paying attention to emotional intelligence.
ENCOURAGE A LOVE OF LEARNING
Young children need to enjoy the process of learning instead of focusing on performance. Educators and parents can emphasize the joys of trying new activities across varying environments. It is important to help children understand that mistakes are a welcome, normal part of learning.
This period is also the time to establish a growth mindset—the belief that talents and abilities are developed through effort and persistence, instead of being innately fixed. Let us remember to emphasize perseverance and create safe spaces for learning. Children will develop a love of learning if we show enthusiasm over the process rather than fixating on results.
FOCUS ON BREADTH, NOT DEPTH
One way to avoid focusing on results during this phase of development is to emphasize the breadth of skill development over depth. Exposing children to a wide variety of activities lays a foundation for developing skills in a range of fields. This is the time to engage children in a variety of movement-based activities, music, reading, math, art, science, and/or languages.
Focusing on excellence in a single activity may be appropriate at some point in life, but the people who thrive in our rapidly changing world are those who first learn how to draw from multiple fields and think creatively and out-side the box. In other words well-rounded individuals.
To be well rounded is especially important for children from ages 2 to 7. Their developing brains are ready to soak in a wide range of skill sets. There is plenty of time for them to specialize later.
DON’T OVERLOOK EMOTIONAL INTELLIGENCE
Yes, we want our children to excel in academics and extra-curricular activities, but we should not disregard emotional intelligence. The advantages of learning during this first critical period of brain development should extend to interpersonal skills such as kindness, empathy, and teamwork.
Daniel Siegel and Tina Payne Bryson explain the importance of developing children’s empathy in their book The Whole-Brain Child. Empathy begins with acknowledging one’s feelings. Therefore, 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 practice labeling emotions, we can start asking questions that encourage them to consider others’ feelings, thus supporting social peer interactions and friendships. Don’t forget you can label your emotions when engaged in experiences with your children as a model – both emotions of happiness and frustration; we as humans experience a vast amount of emotions so labeling your own interpersonal experiences around your children will support their emotional intelligence.
IF WE DON’T USE IT WE LOOSE IT
Our brains go through a process, after this critical phase, called pruning; a pruning back of unused and overabundance of synapses. Our goal as parents and educators is to create continued rich experiences leading to an overproduction of synapses during this early critical phase. We want our children’s brain to prune their overabundance of synapses rather than prune crucial under-used synapses.
Those neurological pathways that remain, continue to be activated and strengthened while the ones that go unused are eliminated. Although basic sensations and perception systems are fully developed by the time children reach kindergarten age, other systems such as those involved in memory, decision making and emotion continue to develop well into childhood. The foundations of many of these higher-level abilities, however, are constructed during the early years. This is not to say that later development cannot affect brain growth, however experiences in the early years of childhood affect the development of brain architecture in a way that later experiences do not.
Summer months are a fantastic time to create and encourage our children to engage in diverse sensory rich experiences. Let us re-connect to the love of learning and exploration.