Keys to Brain Development

In the first five years of life, a child’s brain grows from 25% the size of an adult’s brain at birth to 92% the size of an adult’s brain. All that growth comes from making connections – connections built through hands-on, multi-sensory experiences of their world. There are several ways parents can support their children’s growth and development. This video gives a quick summary, and I’ll give more details below.

Novelty – New Experiences

The parent can provide a diverse array of new experiences. These don’t have to be fancy, they don’t have to be expensive, they don’t have to be based on advanced scientific research. These are just the everyday experiences of life. Just simple activities like going for a walk, looking at the clouds, stomping in puddles, touching a slug, coming home and making hot chocolate together, snuggling up on the couch with a good book, playing with blocks, then drawing pictures. Any new experience builds connections in a child’s brain.

And if you don’t have the energy to think of something new to do, try putting together two familiar things in a new way, and see what your child does differently. For example, take the rubber duckies from the bathtub and put them with the Duplos, or take the colander from the kitchen to the bathtub. Your child will be delighted by the new possibilities. Learn more about “invitations to play.”

I have a whole collection of easy free activities with toddlers to get you inspired. (Not all are do-able in the coronavirus era, but most are.) Everything from “nature shopping” to “counting cars”, from “construction theater” to year-round egg hunts.

I want to encourage my child’s growth in all diverse knowledge and skills. I find it helpful to think about categories of development – have we done anything today to build large motor skills? What about fine motor skills? I also find the theory of multiple intelligences to be a helpful guide to inspiring new ideas – have we tried out any music today? And spatial challenges? Here’s an article I wrote on choosing toys and activities for toddlers that build multiple intelligences.

I do encourage you to offer your child lots of learning opportunities, but please don’t feel like you have to be doing a non-stop song and dance, tossing new things into the ring continuously. That would be exhausting for you! But it could also teach your child that the only way to be happy is to be continually entertained with new things. They would also be missing out on the full depth of possible learning if you did this and ignored the next two keys to brain development: repetition and down time.

Repetition – Doing it Again and Again Builds Mastery

Doing something for the first time makes a connection. Doing it again strengthens that connection. Doing it again in a different setting strengthens that connection and also makes connections to this new setting. Combining that activity with another deepens understanding. Think of a child learning to walk – they fall again and again until the a-ha moment happens. But then they still stumble and wobble along for a while. But the more they walk, the better they get at it. Or think of anyone learning an instrument – we don’t become expert by going to a class once a week. To become a skilled musician requires playing those same scales again and again till you reach mastery.

Don’t rush them. If they’re just barely starting to understand something and you push them onward, they’ll have a shaky foundation for future learning. For example, if you have a child who has just barely learned to count to three, don’t feel like you have to rush them on to 4, 5, 6… 10… 100. Let them stay at three for a while – really exploring three, getting to the point where they can tell at a glance if they have three objects or more than that or less than that. If you can do this, your child will have such a solid understanding of the fundamentals of math, everything later on will make more sense.

When my oldest kids were little, I probably over-did the novelty. I felt like I continuously had to provide new experiences. My oldest child resisted transitions so much, and looking back, I think a big part of it was that he was always feeling forced to move on before he was ready. By the time my third child came along, I had learned a lot about the importance of repetition for brain development, so I was willing to let him do things again and again. It’s a good thing, because that little boy has deep passions and wants to immerse himself in the same things for weeks or months on end.

But with him, I saw clear evidence of everything the research says about repetition and also about following a child’s interests. When he was wild about dinosaurs, we could teach everything else he needed to learn in that context – we could teaching counting, and colors, and music and art, all focused on dinosaurs. When he had the chance to do something again and again, he developed so much self-esteem in seeing himself as a competent learner. Whenever he was feeling anxious about anything else, returning to this familiar territory helped get him grounded and feeling capable, then he could take on new challenges.

There is a concept called Schemas of Play, which addresses how children tend to be working on a few key ideas at any given time. They might be exploring: Trajectory – kicking and throwing balls, or Transportation – carrying things everywhere, or Connecting – assembling puzzles. They may repeat the same activity over and over, but know that they are learning important concepts by doing that. Check out some ways to support your child’s schemas of play.

Down Time – to Process it All

Children need rest. It is during sleep that we build myelin sheaths that insulate our nerve pathways, helping us access information more quickly and efficiently apply that knowledge to new situations. (Nutrition is also important. To build myelin, they also need a diet with plenty of healthy fats, like fish oils, nuts, avocados, olive oil, and whole milk. Learn more about nutrition for growing brains.)

They need down time – time to putter around the house “doing nothing.” Time to play aimlessly. Time to “waste time.” When they don’t appear to be doing anything, it may be because they are processing all the new learning they’ve been experiencing, and they need time to take it all in and incorporate it.

Don’t feel like you have to constantly entertain your child. When they are “bored” is when they may come up with some of their most creative ideas. They might make connections between things on their own. I remember once my daughter, who was 5 at the time, was complaining about how bored she was. I told her “I need to finish this work… figure out what to do for 15 minutes, OK?” My work took longer than expected, and when I went to find her 45 minutes later, she had all the toy horses arrayed on the table, and proceeded to tell me all their names, ranks and how they were related: “Princess Snowy is getting married to Duke Blaze – he is from a different kingdom where his sister… ” She’d created this whole complex imaginary play world, which she would never have done if I was hovering over her guiding her play.

I think it can feel tricky to find the right balance between feeling like we should introduce novelty and guide learning and knowing when to step back and let them explore on their own. It could be something as simple as having a bedtime story routine – each night, we read two stories – one for novelty, one for repetition, and then I let my child look at books on her own for a few minutes before turning off the light. (Here’s more about choosing books for your child.)

Read this article on How Much is Enough, How Much is Too Much which looks at questions like how many toys to buy, how many activities to schedule, and how screen time fits in.

Check out my past writing on brain development, which includes more about the science of brain development.

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