Tag Archives: brain development

Brain Map


I have created a poster / handout on brain development and how parents can help their children learn. Great for educators to handout or post, but also helpful for parents to print a copy to post on the fridge as a reminder of ways to help all of your child’s brain capacity develop. The ages shown are “sensitive periods” when that part of the brain is most actively developing or reaching maturity, and when parents might most want to focus on those skills.

On the back is the handout for my “Hands On is Brains On” presentation.

If you don’t have access to a printer that can do 11×17 (most printers can’t), the “brain map” will reduce well to print on an 8.5×11 sheet.



Hands On is Brains On

I recently did a presentation at Kidsquest Children’s Museum in Bellevue, WA on how kids learn, titled Hands On is Brains On.

It combines information on the basics of brain development, ideas about the important of offering a balance of learning opportunities, the benefits of free play, and the parent/teacher’s role in play-based learning.

You can check out the powerpoint handout here, or, if you’re a parent educator, you can download a powerpoint presentation that you could edit and use in your own classroom.

Brain development – how to help your child learn and grow

brain mapThis is a poster I developed for class about the stages of brain development, and what parents can do to create an environment that aids brain growth. Click on the picture for a full screen view.

To learn more about how to help your child’s brain develop to its full potential, check out: https://gooddayswithkids.com/2013/10/29/brain-development/ and at https://gooddayswithkids.com/2015/06/22/hands-on-is-brains-on/

Note: the brain illustration is copyright Macmillan Cancer Support 2012. The text boxes about what part of the brain it is, its sensitive period, and how you can help are my work.

Play-Based Learning

What is play-based learning?

The teacher or parent sets the stage with engaging and fun activities. Then the child explores through play: observing, experiencing, wondering, exploring, and discovering. The teacher or parent is nearby to observe, ask questions, make suggestions, or play along with the child. But the child decides which activities to do, which toys to play with, what to do with them, and for how long.

[The video linked above, by Jessica Lubina, is a nice quick overview of the concept.]

What is play?

Play can be defined as anything that has these characteristics:

  • Child-Led. Freely chosen. The child is in control. He makes the plan.
  • Process, Not Product. Play is done for its own sake, not to accomplish a task. It involves lots of exploring of possibilities, experiments, trial and error, and repetition.
  • Creative. The child can adapt items, create something new or experience things in a new way.
  • Spontaneous. It’s flexible and open-ended, and it changes and evolves as play time goes on.
  • Fun. The player looks happy and engaged.

Does a child really learn by “just playing”?

We know the brain builds connections when it is exposed to novel experiences, and then allowed to repeat them again and again till it achieves mastery. This process builds two 2 forms of intelligence: memory – crystallized intelligence – the database of information that we access, and improvisation – fluid intelligence – what allows us to adapt that information to new situations. (Medina)

Direct instruction from a parent or teacher can be a great way of adding information to the database of crystallized intelligence. But, the best possible way for children to build fluid intelligence is by hands-on, engaged, self-guided improvisation… in other words, by playing.

What play-based learning is not:

  • Specialized toys. Despite what marketers tell you, learning does not require scientifically designed educational toys and apps or flash cards. Simple, open-ended toys will do.
  • Uninvolved babysitters. Some schools have co-opted the phrase “play-based learning” as a justification for sitting back and letting kids do whatever they want to do with no forethought by the teachers, and no input along the way. We’re talking about a more engaged process.

Benefits – Kids who learn by playing gain:

  • Physical competence. Free play allows a child to practice emerging skills till they are mastered.
  • Self-direction. The child gets to make decisions, make plans, and see them through.
  • Creativity. Experiments show that children who are taught “the right way” to use a toy will use it in limited ways. Kids who are allowed to freely explore develop many more creative uses.
  • Problem-solving. When a child creates her own plan for play, she doesn’t foresee challenges that will come up that an adult might see. This offers lots of chances for problem-solving.
  • Language skills. Play requires asking and answering questions, giving commands and acting on them, and explaining your goals to the person you are playing with.
  • Conflict resolution skills. There’s lots of negotiation that goes on in cooperative play.
  • Emotional intelligence. Dramatic play helps children understand emotions, learn how to express emotions, and distinguish between real emotions and “pretend” emotions.
  • Symbolic play. If a child can use a stick to simulate an ice cream cone, it helps her later understand that numbers on a page represent how many objects they have, and that letters represent sounds, and musical notes on a page indicate where to place her fingers.
  • Better memory. Kids are motivated to remember things they need to know for a play scenario.
  • Reduced stress. Play is fun. Children play when they feel safe. We are all more capable of learning new things when we are having fun and feeling safe.

Teacher’s Role / Parent’s Role

The adult plans an environment and schedule which promotes learning. Children learn best when they feel safe, so familiar routines, consistent rules, and respectful caregivers are essential components. The adults offer meaningful experiences that are stimulating, invite exploration and engage kids. The teacher often has outcomes in mind: knowledge, skills, abilities and understandings children will acquire. But they have not determined an exact path the child must take to get that knowledge.

As Teacher Tom says: “One thing I don’t do is decide what the children will learn… That’s not the job of a teacher… that’s the job of the children. My job is to create an environment, then play with them in it, helping them, but only when they really need it.” Some roles an adult may play are:

  • Stage manager: Sets the stage. Creates an “invitation to play” that combines familiar objects and activities (for repetition/mastery) with novel objects to explore and discover.
  • Observer. Observe quietly. Be there so if they look up with an “a-ha” moment, or an “I did it”, you’re there to reflect that success back to them. A good rule of thumb is to observe for at least 3 minutes before talking. Then make suggestions or ask questions to extend their thinking, or encourage reflection. But don’t change their play, or tell them what their results need to be.
  • Recorder: Ask them to describe what they are doing. (Remember, ask about the process, not the product they’ll end up with.) Write it down to share with a parent or friend later.
  • Facilitator: Help get them the tools they need to accomplish their play plan. Help clear away the “clutter” that gets in the way of their play. Ask more, answer less.
  • Mediator: For children age 3 and up, it’s best to sit back and let kids work out their own conflicts and learn from doing so. But sometimes, especially with younger children, an adult helps resolved conflicts by offering new materials or suggesting alternatives, and modelling flexible thinking needed for peer interactions.
  • Interpreter: help children understand what is meant by another’s words and actions.
  • Participant in play: You follow their lead, respect their individual style of play. Don’t try to make the game your own. Simply be one of the kids who is playing! (As the “big kid” in the group, you can role model respect, creativity, flexibility.)
  • Tools of the Mind style. Kids develop a plan for their pretend play. Teacher offers instruction in pretend play – suggestions specific to the scenario. Kids play. When play comes to an end, the teacher discusses it with them and asks about what they did.
  • Reggio Emilia – inquiry-based or project-based learning style. When your child demonstrates interest in a topic, you collect resources related to it: books, videos, tools, resources for dramatic play related to it. The child chooses a project and must plan their actions, gather information, and develop new ideas. The teacher / parent observes, participates, guides the play when needed, asks questions, and encourages deeper thinking.

A key element of play-based learning is Scaffolding. Development advances and learning occurs when children are challenged to do something just one step beyond their current mastery, and then allowed to practice newly acquired skills. Adults and older children help them make the step by giving a hint, modelling the skill, or adapting materials or activities, and then allowing them to continue to play.


Read: Brain Rules for Babies, by John Medina.

Collections of resources on Play & Learning: www.naeyc.org/play and www.zerotothree.org/child-development/play/

Watch: The Power of Play documentary: https://vimeo.com/20964066

If you ever find yourself wondering about our class: “Why aren’t they teaching my child anything?? All they do is play!” watch this video to remember everything kids learn when they are playing: www.youtube.com/watch?v=GNlW7YIX7pk

Additional Sources Used:

The Playing Learning Child: Towards a pedagogy of early childhood. Samuelsson & Carlsson. 2008  Scandinavian Journal of Education.  http://www.tandfonline.com/doi/pdf/10.1080/00313830802497265

The Role of Play in Today’s Kindergarten, Lori Jamison. http://lorijamison.com/blog/wp-content/uploads/2011/06/The-Role-of-Play-in-Todays-Kindergarten.pdf

References to Play in NAEYC Position Statements: http://www.naeyc.org/files/naeyc/file/ecprofessional/Play%20references%20in%20NAEYC%20position%20statements_10%2009%20update.pdf

Play in the Preschool Classroom: Its Socio-emotional Significance and the Teacher’s Role in Play, Godwin S. Ashiabi1,2 Early Childhood Education Journal, Vol. 35, No. 2, October 2007. http://leadershiplinc.illinoisstate.edu/play-based-learning/documents/play_in_the_preschool_classroom.pdf

Go Play – Promoting Your Child’s Learning Through Play www.zerotothree.org

Teaching a Play-Based Curriculum by Teacher Tom. http://teachertomsblog.blogspot.com/2012/04/teaching-play-based-curriculum.html

What is child-led play? On nature-play.co.uk

The Toddler’s Perspective – they see the world differently than we do!

I love this video of toddlers who are scared of (or combative with) their own shadows.
The parents try to explain rationally that “it’s just your shadow. It’s OK. There’s nothing to be scared of.” But the kids are still thinking “there’s this creepy black thing following me everywhere and I can’t get rid of it. It’s like it’s stuck to my feet! I’ve never had this experience before, so it’s freaking me out!”
But as funny as the video is, I think it also illustrates a point well.
Toddlers have limited experience of the world, and because of this, they simply see the world differently than we do. They have developed theories based on their life experience, and our “rational explanations” may not always jive with their theories.
I thought of this once when I was trying to get my 3 year old out the door for story time. I kept saying “We have to hurry. Story time is happening right now, and if we don’t go, we’ll miss it.” And he didn’t understand.
Then I thought about it from his perspective. As far as he can tell, it’s ALWAYS story time at the library!
EVERY TIME we’ve ever walked through those doors, we walk into the story time room, and then in the next minute or two, story time starts. It’s like they wait for him to get settled in, then they start. So, since he “knows” that story time will always be there for him, he doesn’t see a reason to give up the fun game he’s playing right now to go there.

My role as a parent is to explain things so that he develops his understanding of the world, and refines his theories of how things work. But, I also have to remember to be patient with him as he does so. When he’s not listening to my “rational explanations”, I try to stop and think about why they don’t make sense to him and then find a new way to explain.

Toddlers love repetition


All young children love repeating the same thing over and over. It gives them a great sense of mastery over their world when they know what to expect and they know what is expected of them. This is true of ALL children. But especially of my little boy.

With his big sisters, I was all about variety in their activities, and diverse experiences, and exposing them to as many things as possible. Sure, we had some books we read again and again, and some favorite places we visited often, but I definitely actively sought out new adventures for them, both for their sake, and – frankly – because I was young and impatient and easily bored of the ‘same old thing.’

But my boy demands routine. He insists on the familiar. He revels in repetition.

He dives deep into things with a devoted passion. When he had just turned two, he fell in love with Cat in the Hat, and we spent 3 months reading it over and over.We all had it memorized, and we were all grateful that there are so many of us in his daily life that can read to him. (Between me, my husband, the grandparents, and the sisters, he has 6 dedicated readers to go to. So each of us only had to read the book about 100 times, rather than the 600 repetitions I would have had to read without my village of support.)

After that, it was about 6 months of trains. The Thomas the Tank Engine videos, train books, toy trains and tracks, the trips on real steam engines, the sitting by tracks and watching trains pass by. Now, it’s not that trains were the ONLY thing we played with. On a regular basis, I “made him” do other things, and there were plenty of trips to the playground and the library and concerts and books about other topics… But definitely trains dominated. Again, it helped that his abuelo (grandpa) loves trains and was quite happy to play along.

Then it was 5 or so months of the alphabet. Listening to YouTube ABC songs in the car everywhere we drove, playing all the ABC apps that exist for the Kindle Fire, putting together letter puzzles, singing the ABCs, playing the “I’m thinking of an animal that starts with the letter R” game.

Now we’re five months into the planets. The books, the videos, the planetarium visits…  I’ve got the three year old who is sliding down the slide shouting “Mercury, Venus, Earth, Mars…” and telling the other kids “the sun is the center of our solar system. The planets orbit around it. It takes one year for the Earth to orbit the sun” and so on. And everywhere we go he finds sets of nine objects to line up to be the planets. Whether it’s balls, rocks, sea shells, sugar packets at a restaurant… the smallest items are Mercury and Pluto, the biggest is Jupiter, etc.

Sometimes this repetition / focus drives his sister crazy. She’s 17 and thinks the world is more interesting with variety.

It doesn’t really drive me crazy though.

Most of the time.

Partially because I’m older and more patient. Partially because of all the other adults (and adult-like older siblings) who help support his passions – if it was only me doing all this with him, I’d have worn out by now. Partially because I can see how much he learns by doing it. We know from neuroscience that children learn / build connections in their brain through repetition, especially in a setting where they feel happy and safe. My boy learned to read before he was 3. He can memorize books, songs, and videos… the other day he was quoting a Bill Nye the Science guy video word for word… He’s also on track for learning all the things he should be learning at 3 – how to hold a marker (and draw planets), how to sort things by categories (rocky planets, gas giants, dwarf planets), how to make things of clay (yep, planets), how to carry a tune (yes, singing songs about planets) – and lots more skills we expect at this age. We’ve also talked about things I didn’t expect to cover at this age – like states of matter.

And really, the biggest reason I’m willing to repeat things over and over is simply that it makes him happy. The joy and satisfaction he finds in a deep mastery of a topic is pretty hard to resist.

Videos and Podcasts about Brain Development

With two jobs and a toddler at home, I don’t have a lot of time to read. I’m guessing you may not have much time to read either!

But, with a smartphone or tablet that can play videos and mp3 sound recordings, there’s a whole world of free educational opportunities on the Internet. I can listen to these while driving, working out, doing dishes, or walking to the store. Here are some good options for learning more about brain development and toddlers:


The Zero to Three podcast series is fabulous: “Each podcast features an interview with an expert that focuses on how to apply the research of early childhood development to your daily interactions with your baby or toddler.” Creating Healthy Connections: Nurturing Brain Development From Birth to Three featuring Alison Gopnik, Ph.D. is just one of the great podcasts you’ll find there: http://www.zerotothree.org/about-us/funded-projects/parenting-resources/podcast/

YouTube videos:

Infant Brain development: A brief video on brain development including animations of how brain wiring occurs. (3:15)

Nurturing your child’s Early Brain development: Chaya Kulkarni, Director of Infant Mental Health Promotion at Toronto’s Hospital for Sick Children, tells why it’s so important to nurture your child’s early brain development, and how to do it. 11:07

Early learning and the Brain: Discusses research into early brain development at the University of Washington Institute for Learning and Brain Sciences (I-Labs). Very accessible presentation about what research can show us.5:42

Wiring the Brain for Success: Early Childhood and Developmental Psychology Expert, Dr. Becky Bailey shares her insights on how neuroscience reveals optimal situations that will wire our children for success. Focus is on how children must first master their survival skills (brain stem), then emotional skills (limbic system), then executive skills (frontal lobe.) 17:48

How Parenting Affects Your Child’s Brain: Child and family therapist Jennifer Kolari explains how positive parenting, safety, and love stimulate the production of oxytocin in a child’s brain and how that benefits the child and the parents. 9:23  More from Jennifer Kolari.

Brain development and Nurturing Children’s Growing Minds: If you want to dive deep into this topic: Victoria Tennant did a presentation to foster parents (some number of years ago) about neurobiology of the brain, the effect of abuse and neglect on a developing brain and what you can do to help a child be all that he/she was meant to be. (Part 1 is over an hour.)