Building children’s brains—why children need rich learning environments

‘Is the grass green at night?’ ponders the four-year-old. The crawling toddler pulls himself up on the shelf to study the children’s photographs and reaches out for the photo of him. ‘That’s not fair’, says the three-year-old when one child takes all the red cars. The baby starts wriggling and kicking his feet excitedly when he sees mum arrive to pick him up.

These scenes show children’s brains at work. How educators respond to each child is crucial to brain development and lays the foundation for learning and success in later life.  

It is the quality and the availability of appropriate experiences at the right stages of development that supports early learning. In the same way that we construct buildings with firm foundations and support structures, each newly acquired skill supports the sequential development of the next with higher level circuits built on lower level circuits.

A young child scribbling with a crayon on paper is a significant precursor to later writing—manipulating a pen develops hand-eye coordination and fine motor skills.

Children’s brains develop best in an environment of emotional security. The plasticity of the young child’s brain means the period of early childhood really matters. Children’s brains are both more vulnerable to developmental problems, through environments that are harsh, non-nurturing and impoverished or more positive through environments that are relationship strong and rich in experiences.

Experiences and environments are responsible for fine-tuning the connections in children’s brains, and helping each child adapt to the particular environment (geographical, cultural, family, school, and or peer-group).

At enrolment and orientation, educators spend time with families and children to begin to build relationships and a sense of belonging, before the child begins.

Children’s brain development is ‘activity dependant’ so every experience children have contributes to their sensory, physical, emotional and cognitive learning as it shapes the way the brain takes in, manages and shapes the information.

A responsive educator will notice the child becoming increasingly frustrated as the blocks keep falling over and step in with suggestions and prompts to enable the child to solve the problem without tears.

When educators are actively involved with children as they interact and play they are able to respond quickly, acknowledge effort and prompt and extend children’s thinking, knowledge and vocabulary.

‘I wonder’; ‘why did that happen?’; ‘what if?’; ‘that’s amazing that huge hole you have made in the sandpit  I think it’s  enormous’; ‘that’s not a worm in the garden, worms look like this’—‘let’s find out exactly by looking on the net/in a book’; understand and respond to each child’s cues for comfort, food, company.

It is through this play that children build and strengthen skills for life—social skills, problem solving, self-confidence and flexibility.

A rich early childhood service amplifies each child’s natural abilities and has a significant role to play in working with and alongside parents to ensure all children establish healthy patterns for life-long learning and success. It is this collective effort and mutual support that results in optimal child development which will ensure greater prosperity for all.

 

Tips

Each child’s early experiences determine what information enters the brain and influences how the brain processes the information—a foundation for human adaptability and resilience.

Environments that support children’s early and lifelong learning are ones that:

  • are rich in relationships
  • are rich in conversations
  • are sensitive to each child’s individual strengths and emerging skills
  • allow children choice and to be decision makers
  • give children opportunities to explore, practise skills and take risks
  • engage in ‘big’ ideas, around local and global issues such as reconciliation, tolerance and environmental sustainability
  • allow children to play and be given the opportunity to refine and develop skills over time.

 

Babies (newborn–12 months)

  • The establishment of relationships with one or two adults is significant.
  • A baby learns to ‘read’ a familiar adult’s face, voice, expressions and gestures and responds appropriately.
  • A predictable routine and environment supports the baby to feel safe and secure.
  • Loving touch is important for healthy growth.
  • A baby’s emerging and changing needs are rapid as they grow and develop.

Toddlers (one–three years)

Toddlers:

  • are beginning to build relationships with others outside of the immediate family
  • are becoming independent and more physically competent
  • use gestures and words to convey their needs to others
  • are curious, energetic and exploratory
  • may not understand own limitations—need support to take suitable risks.

Pre-school (three–five years)

  • Relationships with adults and peers outside the immediate family are important—friendships matter.
  • Preschoolers play for extended periods of time as they build a platform for later more formal learning.
  • Preschoolers are involved in more complex, cooperative and dramatic play including role play and games with rules.
  • Preschoolers like to know ‘why’ and factual information—seeking reason and meaning. 
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