Not a day goes by that I don’t read or hear about new finding in early brain development. We know so much about how a healthy brain grows. I am amazed at both the complexity and yet simplicity of early brain development! The brain is the only organ in the human body that is not fully developed at birth. All the other organs (heart, lungs, liver, etc) operate at birth pretty much the same way they will function for the rest of a child’s life. In the first five years of life the brain grows faster and deeper than at any other point in a life. By the time a child turns 5, his brain is 90 percent the size it will be for life. I find this pretty daunting and an awfully big responsibility for a parent.
But really it’s not that complicated to grow a healthy and vibrant brain. Most of the things that research tells us are necessary for optimal brain growth are easy and cheap. Beyond having the physical things a child needs (food, shelter, love) the rest of the needs of a brain fall into three categories.
Relationships: Kids need to be connected to other people. They need parents or parent figures who love them without condition. They need people in their life who think they are the greatest, smartest, cutest, funniest and most creative child they know. They need people that are happy to be with them. They need to have deep and caring relationships with other people too such as grandparents, other family, friends, caregivers and people in their neighborhood. This sounds easy doesn’t it?
Experiences: Kids need lots of experiences — simply, ordinary experiences. They need to be able to explore their world with all their senses — actively explore! They need to touch things, run around things/places, jump off stuff, smell and taste — just learn about their world in every way they can. They need to make mistakes; the deepest learning comes from mistakes. They need to be allowed to spill things (accidentally, of course) and learn to clean up after. They need to taste icky (safe) things. They need to jump too high and run to far. If they can go new places and see new things, that is great but just enjoying their immediate world in the most intimate way works too. That means going to the park every day, if they want. It means noticing the changes around them. It means watching the ant crawl across the front porch for an hour. It means sticking your tongue out in the rain. It means exploring and experiencing all the little things in life….and then talking about them. Research tells us the biggest predictor of school success is the depth of a child’s language at 5 years old. And as easy as this is, it is simple conversation that is the biggest vocabulary builder. So turn off the media in the car and talk. Turn off the TV earlier at night and talk. Take turns taking about everyone’s daily experiences at the dinner table ... talk, talk, talk!
Inner life: Each child has uniqueness. They all have those things that interest them, those interests that can engage them for long periods of time. Each child needs to have time, space and experiences to create in their own mind. They need to have an imagination time. They need time and acceptance to like the things they like and not like the things they don’t. We, as parents, need to nurture that inner being in each child, to give them the time, tools and appreciation to be who they are. I remember a child I had in preschool who loved to drum. He made rhythms on any surface. I added different drums to our music center. He was in awe of all the drums and could tell you so much about them and each unique sound. Playing on the drums brought him to life— his whole demeanor and facial expression turned to joy when he could either play those drums or talk about them. What brings that kind of engagement to your child? Nurture it!
The great news is all these brain developers work together with only a little bit of intentionality from you. The intentionality comes in slowing down and enjoying childhood with your child. Try not to over-schedule your life. Simplify the things you can that will allow you to experience life unhurried with your child. It will give you a chance to really know this precious child you call yours.
Jeanne Labana of Milwaukee has been an educator for over 25 years.