Tag Archives: brain development

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.

Brain Map

BrainMap

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.

Resources

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