Babies begin to learn about the world around them from a very early age. Children’s early experiences – the bonds they form with their parents and their first learning experiences – deeply affect their future physical, cognitive, emotional and social development. Learning starts in infancy, long before formal education begins, and continues throughout life. A young child’s brain needs certain types of stimulation to develop properly. Without that stimulation, certain types of learning will not be possible when the child enters school.
Experts tell us that 90% of all brain development occurs by the age of five. If we don’t begin thinking about education in the early years, our children are at risk of falling behind by the time they start Kindergarten. This is why Early Childhood Education is so important. Infants and toddlers learn about themselves and their world during interactions with others. Brain connections that lead to later success grow out of nurturing, supportive and predictable care. This type of caregiving fosters child curiosity, creativity and self-confidence.
Young children need safety, love, conversation and a stimulating environment to develop and keep important synapses in the brain. During the first 3 years of life, children experience the world in a more complete way than children of any other age. The brain takes in the external world through its system of sight, hearing, smell, touch and taste. This means that infant social, emotional, cognitive, physical and language development are stimulated during multisensory experiences.
Infants and toddlers need the opportunity to participate in a world filled with stimulating sights, sounds and people. Before children are able to talk, emotional expressions are the language of relationships. Research shows that infants’ positive and negative emotions, and caregivers’ sensitive responsiveness to them, can help early brain development.
For example, shared positive emotion between a caregiver and an infant, such as laughter and smiling, engages brain activity in good ways and promotes feelings of security. Also, when interactions are accompanied by lots of emotion, they are more readily remembered and recalled.
The primary giver, when providing consistent and predictable nurturing to the infant creates what is known as a “secure” attachment. This is accomplished in that rhythmic dance between infant and caregiver; the loving cuddles, hugs, smiles and noises that pass between caregiver and infant. Should this dance be out of step, unpredictable, highly inconsistent or chaotic an “insecure” attachment is formed. When attachments are secure the infant learns that it is lovable and loved, that adults will provide nurture and care and that the world is a safe place.
When attachment is insecure the infant learns the opposite. As the child grows from a base of secure attachment he or she becomes ready to love and be a friend. A secure attachment creates the capacity to form and maintain healthy emotional bonds with another. Attachment is the template through which we view the world and people in it. The brain grows from the bottom to the top. Each of the core strengths is related to a stage and site of brain growth. In infancy attachment bonds are acquired and lay down emotional signals deep within the brain.
At the same time the brain stem is seeing to it that bodily functions can be self-regulated. Later on in childhood the emotional centers of the brain come under increasing control so temper tantrums disappear and the child controls their emotional life. In mid-childhood the child’s brain begins to develop the capacity to think and reflect on the external environment. It is at this stage when the frontal areas of the brain begin to mature and it is at this stage in brain growth when the core strengths of affiliation, attunement, tolerance and respect can mature as well.
Reading aloud with children is known to be the single most important activity for building the knowledge and skills they will eventually require for learning to read. Babies show excitement by widening their eyes and moving their arms and legs when looking at a book with pictures of babies or other familiar objects. Babies learn from conversations even when they cannot understand what you are saying. When babies hear the same words over and over, the parts of the brain that handle speech and language develop. Talk to them as you are changing their diaper or feeding them.
Get down on the floor with them when they are playing. Use this opportunity to talk about the different toys they have. You can talk about the color of the object or make noises, such as a car goes vroom, vroom. In infancy and early childhood, play is the activity through which children learn to recog- nize colors and shapes, tastes and sounds‚ the very building blocks of reality.
Play also provides pathways to love and social connection. In early childhood, play helps children develop skills they can’t get in any other way. Babbling, for example, is a self-initiated form of play through which infants create the sounds they need to learn the language of their parents.
Likewise, chil- dren teach themselves to crawl, stand, and walk through repetitious practice play. At the preschool level, children engage in dramatic play and learn who is a leader, who is a follower, who is outgoing, who is shy. They also learn to negotiate their own conflicts. Study after study explicitly and unambiguously documents that what happens during the early years is critical to a child’s long-term cognitive and behavioral development, physical growth in childhood, and health in adulthood.
Modern brain and child development research supports the need to provide nurturing, educationally stimulating, safe environments and experiences in the early years. A strong and nurturing relationship between children and adults is the most basic ingredient for growing up healthy. Supporting the whole child – physically, socially, and emotionally – provides a baseline for positive experiences from which the child can learn, grow, and thrive. These experiences shape a child’s life and create a strong, foundational web of support that positively contributes to their future.