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Brain Development
Authors: Jandy Jeppson with Judith A. Myers-Walls and Dee Love

When babies are born, their brains are ready to learn. Even newborns can understand some things about objects and their relationship to each other. The brain organizes what the child experiences into groups. As a childcare provider, you give children chances to touch, taste, see, hear, and smell all they can. This helps them to learn about the world around them. As children play with things, they learn about them. For example, children will sit on objects or throw them just to see what will happen. As children get older, they continue to explore the world around them in new ways. For example, children may mix yellow and blue paint to learn that it makes green. Exploring and trying things out is how children learn.

As children learn, their brains grow. This article describes how the brain grows over time. In recent years, there has been a lot of “brain research.” There are some basic facts we have learned about brain development in infancy. Many studies show that you as caregivers have been doing many of the right things to support brain development. Many parents have been doing the right things, too. The best ways to support brain development are (1) being caring and supportive, (2) paying attention to children and giving them what they need, and (3) providing a rich learning environment.


Children are born with all of the brain cells they’re going to have

As babies grow, they learn many things, but they do not get new brain cells. They do not get new muscles, either. The muscles in a baby’s arms and legs will develop as she gets older and matures. In the same way, the nerve cells in the brain (called neurons) will also grow and develop. Muscles must be used to become stronger. The same is true with the brain. Children need to use their brains to learn to think.


When used, brain cells connect


Brain cells are not much good if they are not connected with each other. After birth, brain cells are making connections all the time. These connections are called synapses (SIN app sez). Connections are made when a child has experiences. Experiences make children think. When a child thinks, brain cells are used. The connections (synapses) get stronger the more the child uses them. These connections become a basis for how the child thinks.

The children in your care are always having experiences that help their brains to make strong connections. You can learn about the connections that children’s brains are making. As you explore the learning process, you will learn why some activities are important. Then you can help parents with their children.

The stories of two chidren can explain the idea of the brain making connections. Isaac is 2 ½ years old. He now lives in the United States and speaks English. But he was born in Mongolia. For the first six months of his life he only heard Mongolian. Since he was adopted by a family in the United States, he has heard only English. The brain cells that are used for understanding and speaking English are used whenever he hears, speaks, or thinks in English. Like anyone else, when Isaac was first learning English, he had to hear basic words over and over to help build the connections in his brain. Now that he has some very strong “English-speaking” and “English-understanding” connections, he doesn’t struggle to speak English. He can do it without effort, because the connections are strong.

Giulia, on the other hand, lives in Italy. She is 16 years old and was born in Italy. She has an Italian father and Korean mother. When she was young, she did not hear or speak English. Her brain could have developed “English-speaking” connections, but it did not, because she was not in an English-speaking environment. Instead, her brain made “Italian-speaking” connections. The same process of connections is used for everything a child learns. That is why experiences are so important.


Some connections break down

When connections are not used, they get weaker. Later, they disappear. For example, Giulia took piano lessons for a few years, and then quit playing altogether. The synapses that were used to play the piano became weak, because they were not used. The good news is these synapses can get stronger if Guilia starts to practice the piano again. The more she practices the piano, the stronger these connections become. But the more time that passes without practicing the piano, the harder it will be to build up those connections.

The same is true with Isaac and his ability to learn Mongolian. For the first six months of his life he heard Mongolian. But Isaac’s parents have spoken English with him since he came to the United States. He does not hear Mongolian anymore, only English. So the “Mongolian” connections are getting weaker and weaker. In the long run, the “Mongolian” connections will almost disappear if he does not try to learn Mongolian.


Nature vs. nurture

Some brain development occurs just because it happens naturally. Almost every baby will do things like other babies because of natural growth. But in other ways children will grow very differently. This is because they have many different experiences.

Adults can count on nature taking care of some things. They do not need to teach children every little skill. Most children will learn to talk without parents teaching them how to move their mouths. Most children will learn to roll over without the parents doing anything. But children will not learn to talk if no one talks to them. They will not learn to roll over if they are always in a seat or being held.

Most experts agree that growth comes from both nature and nurture. It is interesting to look at how nature and nurture work together. For a baby’s brain to make connections, she must be healthy and have what she needs physically. If that happens, some changes will come naturally. But that is not enough. She must also be in a place that gives her experiences. Nature and nurture together help her make brain connections and make the connections strong.


The brain is divided into sections


The brain seems to use different brain areas for different jobs. There are not only areas for language and music, but also for math, sight, emotions, and every other job the brain thinks about and does. Within each of these areas, there are millions of neurons and synapses. The areas of the brain can change a little, though. If a person has brain damage in one area, sometimes another area can take over.

The areas of the brain develop at different times. That means that children can learn some things best at particular times. A “window of opportunity” is the time when something is easiest to learn. Windows of opportunity are sometimes called critical periods. The first three years of life are very important times for basic learning. That is when the fastest growth is taking place.

Researchers have learned that there are many windows of opportunity in the first ten years of life. This is because connections are being made in the brain then at the most rapid rates. All researchers do not agree about what is meant by windows of opportunity. Most agree that there are times when some things are easier to learn than at other times. But, it is hard to say exactly when windows of opportunity occur. It is also hard to say exactly what things are learned within a window of opportunity.

New pathways are always being made. Each day you and the children in your care are having experiences. Those experiences are making connections in your brains. Researchers know that connections are being made at an especially fast rate very early in life. Researchers have compared the brains of one-year-olds with the brains of newborns and with adults. They found that a one-year-old brain is more like the brain of an adult than the brain of a newborn. This shows how fast the connections are made during the first year of life.

During the first years of life, the brain is ready to learn. Giulia, for example, not only learned Italian, but she also learned a second language as a child. She learned Korean from her mother. Learning a second language was not difficult for young Giulia. Her brain was ready to learn languages. And since her mother provided a “Korean-speaking” environment, Giulia was able to learn Korean. When children are older, they can still learn things, even things that may have been easier to learn while they were younger. Older children must simply learn in different ways than younger children. Some things, like language learning, will take longer for an older person than a younger person. The process is not as natural for an older child as for a younger child.

When Giulia was 15 years old, she decided she wanted to learn English. She learned quickly that it would not be as easy as learning Korean or Italian. She had to work very hard to start making connections between brain cells. She had to practice a lot for the connections to become strong. The more English experiences she had, the stronger the connections became. The stronger the connections became, the less effort she had to put into thinking, writing, speaking, and reading in English.


Other examples of brain development

To explain brain development, we have used examples of language learning. These brain development concepts also apply to other things the brain thinks about and does. Other examples of skills learned from infancy are how to get along with other people, how to know when you have had enough to eat, and how to handle stress. Things that are learned later include reading, doing math, dancing, typing, driving a car, cleaning the house, swimming, and job skills.

Many of the things we learn while we are very young help us to be able to learn when we are older. For example, learning how to interact socially can help us to learn job skills later in life. Learning rhymes and songs helps children when it is time for them to learn to read. The more connections there are in the brain, the more successful children can be at developing skills over time.


The brain and social development

This is an example that you as a caregiver can share with parents about brain development. Children can be learning healthy ways to interact socially from the time they are small infants. Mothers teach their children about “turn taking” in social interactions. Mothers talk to their babies. And babies “talk” back. Babies talk by babbling and making other baby noises. Mothers should allow their babies to finish “talking” before the mother talks again. When mothers let their babies take their turn in the interaction, they are teaching their babies the first things they need to know about social interactions. Babies can learn to “talk” when it’s their turn to talk, and to listen when it’s their turn to listen. When these social interactions take place, connections, or synapses, in the brain are being made.

Unfortunately, some mothers, and other people who interact with babies, do not allow babies to have their turn. Some adults and children will just keep talking to the baby while the baby is trying to take his turn. This can be seen when a baby tries to turn his head away from his mother, but his mother keeps putting her face in front of her baby. Babies get upset and confused when this happens. Other times, adults and children won’t listen to babies when they need attention. When these confusing things happen, the synapses for “turn-taking” are not being connected properly.

“Turn-taking” needs to be learned for children and adults to take turns in social interactions. The brain needs to make those connections. If the connections are not made when a child is young, the connections will need to be made as the child grows older. Just like with learning a language, or learning to play the piano, learning to take turns in social interactions becomes more natural the more it is done. And it is easiest to learn early in life. The more experiences the brain has with something, the stronger the connections, or synapses, in that part of the brain become.

You may want to learn more about brain development in general and look for information for parents and caregivers.

  Brain development


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For more information, contact Judith A. Myers-Walls, PhD, CFLE at jmyerswa@purdue.edu

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