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The Growing Brain and the Environment

The brain is what some scientists call a use-dependent organ. It does not know what type of an environment it is going to be born into and is thus amazingly flexible to making adaptations based on experiences.

by Aidan Bohlander, Senior Content Specialist, ZERO TO THREE

During the early years of life, the foundation for the architecture of the brain is being laid. It is solidified through the early experiences adults provide for very young children, which influence whether the brain’s architecture will be strong or fragile. Therefore, researchers believe that early childhood is a prime opportunity to positively influence the course of a person’s life.

The brain is what some scientists call a use-dependent organ. It does not know what type of an environment it is going to be born into and is thus amazingly flexible to making adaptations based on experiences. For example, if an infant experiences food scarcity, the systems controlling her metabolism might slow to prepare for less food. If a young child experiences a dangerous environment, his stress response system may be “wired” to be more easily activated and thus always be on the lookout for danger (Thompson, 2014).

The brain grows both in size and connectivity from birth through adulthood, but the greatest neuroplasticity, or ability to make new connections based on our experiences, happens in early childhood. In other words, brains become less adaptable as children grow older. Researchers have known about the rapid pace of brain development in early childhood for a couple of decades now, but new research reveals that it may be happening even faster than previously estimated. In fact, scientists have recently revised their estimates of 700–1,000 new neural connections per second to more than 1 million new connections per second. A prime example of this greater brain adaptability in early childhood is learning a new language. The brain is much more open to making the connections necessary to learn a new language in the first few years of life than at 30 or 50 years old. It takes much more effort as individuals get older to effect change in the brain through experiences (Thompson, 2014). This explains why my efforts to learn Spanish in adulthood have not been very effective, but my 3-year old nephew has picked up Spanish language skills with little exposure at child care.

All of this means that the early years are critically important for brain development. It is the time of greatest opportunity to nurture healthy brain development and the time of greatest vulnerability to poor experiences, such as prolonged stress or lack of stimuli, which affect brain development negatively.

You can play a powerful role in helping to create the best environment for very young children’s growing brains. Consider how you can incorporate the 5 R’s of healthy brain development in your interactions with young children.

  1. Relationships: The loving bond you create with a child is the single most important factor in supporting healthy brain development.
  2. Responsive interactions: Tune in to children’s cues—facial expressions, gestures, sounds, and words—to understand how she is feeling and what she is thinking, and then respond in ways that are supportive and sensitive to what she is “telling” you she needs.
  3. Respect: Try to see the world through the child’s eyes and respect his unique “perspective.”
  4. Routines: Create daily routines so the child knows what to expect.
  5. Repetition: Repeat the child’s favorite songs, rhymes, and stories to help build brain connections.

If you’re curious about more strategies to promote healthy brain development please check out our video: Brain Wonders: Nurturing Healthy Brain Development from Birth. Also look out for our new professional development curriculum for early childhood providers, The Growing Brain, scheduled for release in 2018, for more in-depth knowledge of the latest research and its application for providers.

Thompson, R. A. (2014). Stress and child development. The Future of Children, 24(1), 41–59.

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