As children reach closer to the age of 5 or school age learning, the fears, anxiety, pressures and worries begin. Will my child do well in school? Should we homeschool? Do we pick French Immersion, Art School, Private School or another choice school? Who is my child, what can they handle, what can I handle? Will my decisions affect the rest of their life? Who will their teachers be? Their friends? Are they ready to cope? This is not always an easy transition for parents or children.
Parent know that this world has become a highly competitive world and because we want them to succeed we want them to learn as much as they can as fast as they can, but is that always the best way?
What have we learned about children and brain development in the last decade or so? The early years are critically important in the formation of thinking and reasoning skills. The brain begins to wire itself. The brain then continues to grow and learn throughout childhood and adolescence. The prefrontal cortex of the brain which is responsible for emotional regulation, impulse control and more adult forms of reasoning, does NOT fully develop until the age of 25 years old. 25 years old! Remember this the next time your frustrated with your 16 year old and their lack of self control or emotional stability.
For the first three years of a child's life, the brain is "under construction." In these years what he observes around him, experiences and decides about himself and others will become part of the wiring of his brain.
Q. What primes learning?
A. Stimulation from the outside world. When a child hears, touches, smells, tastes and sees something, this enable the brain to create or change connections in his wiring. These small windows could be missed and it may be more difficult to acquire these abilities later in life. Language development and vision are some of the earlier necessary learning that takes place. This is why pretend play can be so valuable and important. The parents that are excellent at pretend play have children will larger vocabularies and higher reasoning skills later on.
By the age of 10 a child's brain begins to 'prune away the synapses' that haven't been used enough. By adolescence, half have been discarded. For some functions, brain development is a 'use it or lose it' proposition.
Some parents worry their children may not be ready to learn when other children are. Should we be teaching them so many academics and flash carding them all time? Shouldn't we be smashing in as much information as possible right now before it's too late?
The truth is children learn in different ways.
Some researchers agree that it could actually be harmful to force children to learn too quickly or absorb concepts their brain is not mature enough to handle. You may be patching connections in the brain with information that is not fully understood and therefore is less effective and this may have an impact on this skill later in life because it was wired in wrong early on.
Forcing children to learn before they were ready may have psychological effects as well. They may experience self doubt, thinking they are not smart enough or good enough if they have difficulty mastering a concept. They may feel too intimidated to even try and therefore start to exhibit inadequacy behaviours.
The truth is young children learn best in the context of relationships and hands on learning. Brain development is about connections. How the caregivers relate to her, how you talk, play and nurture your relationship is far more important than how to count to 10. Children learn best when they are unstressed and when they live in a stimulating environment says Ross A Thompson, a professor at University of California and a founding member of National Scientific Council on Developing Children. (www.developingchild.net)
Play actually meets all the criteria a child needs to learn at this age.Since they learn best in the context of 'relationships' to others and their environment, what they need most is active involvement. Children learn by using their senses: sight, smell, hearing, taste and touch. They need opporunities to connect new information. Play allow this. Children usually want TO DO rather than watch. Let them get messy squeezing mud through their fingers or throwing your decorative pillows on the floor to become lily pads for him to jump across to the island you call a couch.
Q. How do we encourage play?
A. Lets say they learned something about snakes. You read some information about snakes, then on a nature walk, you encountered a Garter snake. You showed a video on this snake and later you observe your child playing with plastic snakes. Later still he is slithering on the ground hissing like a snake. You can encourage this learning. Become the mouse and let him chase you and eat you up. Tell him he's scaly or slimy. Play with him! He will learn much more about snakes and their habitat through your pretend play and it will wire itself into his memory to use later on when he may want a deeper learning about animals and habitats. Play is your child's way of working and developing his healthy brain.
Some tips on what is most important at such a young age.
-Demonstarting affection, interest and acceptance of your child
-Practice conversation, pretend play, open questions
-Read to them, with them, around them often
-Encourage hands on learning, curiosity, show them the resources
-Limit television time, there is no critical thinking going on, it is a very passive activity
-Use gentle positive discipline, do not shame, threaten or humiliate a child
-Recognize and accept your child's uniquness
-Provide learning through play, especially as a preschooler
-Select childcare carefully and stay involved
-Provide raw materials and hands on activities that they can choose and manipulate themselves
-Take care of yourself, children learn through observation how they should treat themselves.