The standard thinking used to be that children were to be babysat from birth to school age. There’s no excuse for that kind of thinking thanks to the last 20 years research into brain physiology and development. Children begin learning at birth at wildly exorbitant rates. By the age of 2 years the capacity to learn at such a radical pace slows down. By 20 your brain growth looks like a rock compared to that of an infant.
Synapses are the connectors in the brain between neurons. Those synapses are fundamental in getting communication passed from neuron to neuron. (If you’re entertaining ceasing to read this article, please skip the rest of this paragraph and go on to the applications below. Don’t just stop reading because I went all “sciency” on you.) The fascinating thing neurobiologists have discovered is how fast those synapses are developed in the first couple of years. By the time you reach adulthood, you’ll only have about half the volume of brain synapses you had when you were 3 years old. This image shows the expansion of synapses between birth and age 2. Notice the 2 year old’s synapses are as dense (or denser) as the adult brain. You have the most synapses between 2-3 years old, then begin loosing them through the rest of childhood and adolesence.
The result is that a toddler can proccess new information, essentially learn, at a phenomenal rate. This explains how children can learn an entire language within a couple years. (Yes, learning your native language is still learning a language from scratch.) This understanding has led to the growth of things like teaching sign language to infants and toddlers to help them communicate prior to the full development of verbal language. I watch 1 and 2 year olds communicate with workers via signs and consider the waste my young years were because all I learned to do was suck my thumb.
Consider again the explosive growth in the young brain and how that corresponds to the rest of your life. It’s why the head of a growing baby/toddler seems oversized. By the time you’re 3 years old your brain will have tripled in size and be around 85% “adult size.” There’s some minor brain growth between 4 – 20 years.
Think about this for a moment. When do we expect the majority of learning to take place? We zero in on deep education during the high school and college years. More money is spent on education at these levels. More emphasize is made of the volume and content of what we learn during these years. We tell our kids these years will define their lives. However, by those ages, the absorbtion/integration of new data slows dramatically. If this was a financial market, we’d consider this a higher rate of investment for a lower return.
First, opportunities to educate babies, toddlers, and preschoolers should not be wasted. To say it a different way, time invested teaching our little ones during these ages is not a waste. New studies have been showing the words spoken to a child between birth and 3 years will set the tone for how that child learns over their lifetime, processes stress, and emotionally develops. Amanda Meyers wrote, “When a parent talks to a child, synapses in the language centers of the brain are stimulated, leading to stronger connections in that area. If a child hears too few words, many of those synapses are eliminated over time. These fundamental changes in the brain can affect a child throughout life. ” (Memphis Flyer, 04-26-2012)
This early childhood learning should take place in open and safe environments. The best learning takes place in multisensory environments. This isn’t a testing issue. Constant evaluation at this age isn’t needed or necessarily good. Aside from an observable disability to learn, trust me, your child is learning at a faster rate than you. Speak to them. Read to them. Play games with them. They’ll weed out synapses not being used. Use every opportunity to engage those synapses by presenting opportunities to learn, grow and develop intellectually.
Second, those who work with young children are extraordinarily valuable. Whether it’s a worker in a church nursery or your child’s preschool teacher or grandma, anyone spending time talking and playing with your young child is helping them grow smarter. Moms who leave work to be at home with their infants are setting the course for that child’s life of learning. Don’t ever say an “at home” mom isn’t an important job. The preschool teacher who gets paid little to spend days helping small children develop isn’t getting nearly the salary she deserves. The church nursery worker reading to that baby or playing on the floor with a toddler is influencing that child more than they realize. You’re not just babysitting!
So, please don’t drop your child off at a daycare where they just babysit your kid all day long. Don’t put your child in a church class that’s just keeping kids busy while the imporant stuff happens with adults in the auditorium. Don’t think time with a baby, infant, toddler or preschooler is unimportant. Between birth and 5 years each child is being influenced in ways that will impact the rest of his life. That kid is learning something in every environment, with every person.
What are you teaching the kids around you? Trust me, they’re learning more than you think.
The Unexamined Life and All…
Read more on this issue in these articles and reports:
Posted: April 30, 2012
Filed under: Deep Thoughts with Pastor Jeff, Leadership, Pastor Jeff, Spiritual
Tagged: brain, child development, childcare, Growth, learning, learning curve, nursery, Parenting, preschool
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