Estimated read time : 5 minutes
It was a regular scene at the park. A toddler enjoying the swings while her mother tries to help. The toddler insists on resisting all her mother’s well-intentioned efforts to help her learn how to swing. The little girl struggles as she tries to hop on the swing herself and get it to move. After a few energetic wiggles, she gets the swing to move but then the challenge was to keep it moving. After a few futile attempts she realizes that it helped if she raised her legs while moving face forward and pull her legs backs while swinging back. After about half an hour of struggle and many failed attempts, she began swinging like a pro.
She had learned herself how to swing. It occurred to me that children are learning machines; they come wired to learn.
Think about it: Your baby took his or her first steps today and yesterday they were barely able to crawl; they said ‘Mama’ aloud today and yesterday they were not even cooing; today on the road, they surprised you by reading ‘DAD’ on the billboard, when yesterday they could barely identify a letter. Isn’t it magical? How children learn, how they go from being barely verbal to talking nonstop, from craving unsuccessfully for mobility to cruising like a pro, all in a period of two to three years.
What is even more magical is that all of this is being driven by 1 kg of rapidly growing brain inside your beautiful toddler. Your child’s brain is your baby’s very own learning machine.
Your child’s brain is growing at an amazing rate during the first three years of life. At times during your child’s brain development, 250,000 neurons (brain cells in simple words) are added every minute! When your baby was born, he or she had roughly 100 billion neurons – a number close to the number of stars in the Milky Way and almost as many neurons as she will have during her life. All learning will happen as these neurons connect to form pathways called synapses. During the first few years of life, your child’s brain will undergo a number of extraordinary changes. A lot if it is in response to the variety of stimuli he or she receives; the sounds they hear, the faces they see, the smells they experience. And all of what you do; holding them, snuggling with them, cooing to them, reading to them, feeding them, singing to them, managing their meltdowns is all aiding your child’s brain development.
Experts have identified that in these important early years there are clear ‘windows of opportunity” which are sensitive periods when a particular kind of learning is more prone to happen. For example, science has determined that the neurons for vision begin sending messages back and forth rapidly at two to months of age, reaching their peak at eight months. It is no coincidence that babies begin to take notice of the world during this period.
Neuroscientists have also found that language is most readily acquired in the first ten years of life. While children can pick up six languages with ease, adults have a harder time learning even one new language. So, all the casual conversation you do with your toddler when picking up groceries or the lullabies you sing while putting your child to bed are building hundreds of thousands of neural connections enabling them to learn new words and getting ready to speak and read and write later.
Unfortunately, if you miss out in these critical windows of opportunity it is very hard, if not impossible, to develop these skills later in life.
So, what more can you do to make sure that your child’s genius develops to its full potential?
Lee Raby, a psychologist and postdoctoral researcher at the University of Delaware who led a ground-breaking study in Child Development suggests “It seems like, at least in these early years, the parents’ role is to communicate with the child and let them know – ‘I’m here for you when you’re upset, when you need me. And when you don’t need me, I’m your cheerleader’ ,”.
So, keep cheering, keep singing, keep reading and be present in all the special moments you share with your extraordinary learning machine.
Pooja is an acclaimed educator working to transform early childhood education through application of neuroscience research to learning in the early years. She is the founder of Intellitots Learning (acquired by Founding Years) which is known for its ground breaking work in the field of early childhood education and care. Pooja is an angel investor and a mentor to many start ups, business leaders and educators.