Monday, August 18, 2014


The Preschooler's Brain: How Young Children Learn

When a child is born, he has about 100 billion neurons.  Most of them are not connected at birth, but by the time he is three years old each neuron can have over ten thousand connections!  And it doesn't stop there.  The brain continues to wire and re-wire as your child grows.

As a new school year begins, I love the new book buying, new curriculum writing, new goal strategizing, and just the general back-to-school season.

I do not, however, love the pressure.

The pressure is everywhere...and it is worse every year.

The preschools want to make sure their kiddos are ready to read by kindergarten.  The homeschoolers want to make sure nobody thinks their kiddos are falling behind or missing out.  Almost every parent of a preschooler that I have watched wonders if their child "knows enough."

People!  The pressure has got to stop!  And not just because it isn't healthy for caregivers (which it's not!), but because this pressure ignores research about how preschoolers brains develop.

The wiring process for those hundred billion neurons has been studied and researched for years, and we have a lot of really good ideas about how children learn.  Unfortunately, most of that research gets tossed out the window when we start to stress about early learning.  I keep finding myself having the same conversations with parents and teachers about how kiddos learn, so I decided to share this information with everybody!

Today I'm going to share five facts about how preschoolers' brains develop, early learning, and essential things you should know as parents, teachers, and care-givers.  I could share a lot more, but these are some of what I feel are the most important concepts that can be easily implemented in any home or school...even though they are often overlooked.

#1.  Children learn best when they are interested!  If you are dragging your baby away from a train table to do alphabet flash cards, you are not doing him any favors.  Studies show that hormones produced when children are stressed actually destroy connections between neurons in their brain.  On the other hand, when children are in a good mood, well-fed, and well-rested, they learn better and faster.

 * Make sure your kiddos get enough sleep, food, and play before you expect them to sit still.
* If possible, try catering your lessons to their interests.  Let the 4-year old who loves trains learn to count while playing with his train sets.  Click here and here for more ideas about child-led education.

#2.  Children Develop at Different Rates!  Children learn to walk, jump, talk, and use the toilet at different times.  Likewise, different portions of their brains and synapses develop at different rates.  Even the folds inside the brain mature at different rates.  One child may be an early talker while another child may have amazing balance and coordination.  Similarly, one child may be ready to learn phonics months or even years before another.  There are many children who are simply not ready to learn to read until they are six or seven.  Pushing them before they are ready is stressful and deprives them of learning the things they are currently ready for.

* Learning should be a pleasure for preschoolers.  If they act stressed during school time, adapt the curriculum!  Make it simpler.
* If your child is struggling in one area, he may be excelling in another.  Find his strengths and let him build on those also!

#3.  Preschool is a Fabulous Time For Building "Frameworks!"  Our brains (and our children's brains) are not built to remember random bits of information.  Information is stored with other similar knowledge.  I like to imagine our brain as having lots of closets.  Each closet is a framework for a particular subject, and when we learn new things that fit inside that framework, we can hang the information up in that closet.  When new information has somewhere to "hang," it is much easier to remember it!  Many studies have emphasized the importance of prior knowledge when we are trying to learn new things.  Preschool years are a wonderful time to build new frameworks, or new ways of viewing and interpreting the world, through new experiences.  Every time your child touches something new, tastes something unexpected, feels a new texture, or visits a new building, he can expand his current frameworks to include the new knowledge or--when the experience does not fit his current frameworks--build a new paradigm for interpreting future experiences!

* Use a variety of activities in your preschool and/or homeschool time.
* Deliberately introduce a new experience, toy, object, animal, trip, craft, or idea at least once a week!

#4.  "The Other" Learning is Important Too!  We live in a culture that puts a very heavy emphasis on linear, logical, math and reading skills...and for good reason.  They are important.  However, non-linear, "whole-image," visual, artistic, and musical skills are also important.  There are many people who will get much more satisfaction out of creating a painting than solving a math problem (and the other way around, of course)!  Remember that children develop differently...sometimes children's brains are working on their "whole-image" creative processing skills when we want them to be identifying numbers.  Especially for our preschoolers, we need to step back and let them work at their own pace.  The creative skills are valuable in their own right, but it is also worth mentioning that they are not independent.  Your child's brain is interdependent, and strengthening creative skills also strengthens logic skills and prepares the brain to make learning leaps in those areas too.  Many studies are showing that children who take music lessons perform better in language and math than their peers.  This is one of the reasons why play is so critical.  Playing actually creates neural connections that speed mental processing and later learning!  Each neuron in a 3-year old can have 15,000 connections to other neurons!  These connections are literally built as the neurons are used, in play, in exploring, in learning, and in life! The brain is constantly re-wiring itself, and connections that are not used are lost...discarded by the brain in favor of connections that get used more frequently. Imagine which requires more thought (and more neural connections):  a worksheet where you circle pictures of words that start with B or a game where only toys that start with the letter B are allowed on a bridge across a volcano mountain created by a baby dragon?  Even just playing an imaginative game (without the letter aspect) requires many more neural connections than any worksheet.

* Plan at least one open-ended art project every week!
* Play with your children!  Create imaginary scenes where they can be the heroes and problem solvers.  Take them on wild adventures where they can do anything!  Just imagine all the synapses you're creating.  :)

#5.  Sensory Activities are Vital!  Sensory activities activate and grow different parts of your child's brain.  I have also observed that they have a tendency to calm children, redirect their energy, and help them focus.  New research also suggests that sensory input can activate parts of the brain that are critical for higher learning.  For example, olfactory (the sense of smell) stimulation uses neurons in the hippocampus--the same part of your brain responsible for forming and storing memory.

* Try using a sensory bin as a gathering activity, for a center, or during a transition.
* Incorporate a strong sensory activity each day.  Remember the less common senses like olfactory and vestibular.

Finally, I cannot end any suggestions for preschool without this note: read, read, read, READ!!  I cannot emphasize this enough.  Study after study confirms that the more children are read to, the more advantage they will have in their education.  Immerse your children in a literature-rich and language-rich environment.  Read to them.  Talk about what you read.  Make up stories. Talk in the car.  When your child is ready to read (and perform all the math tasks our society values so much), those skills will come easily because of the language-rich environment he has already experienced.

So, there you have it:  five critical notes about how your preschoolers' brains develop (and one vital tip!).  Use them!  Let those tens of thousands of synapses form while you watch!  These concepts can transform your preschool years into fun, educational, and exciting times for you and your kiddo(s) to grow together!

And please...let the pressure go!  You don't need it and your kiddos don't need it either.

Have you used these ideas, or similar ones?  I would love to hear about your experiences!  Feel free to leave a comment or post on our PreschoolPowolPackets Facebook page!

Additional Reading/Resources:

Research in Brain Function and Learning from the American Psychological Association

Disclaimer:  I am not a doctor or a psychologist.  I am a licensed teacher with a science degree, loads of experience with children, and a passion for learning about human development.  This blog post, like all others, represents my experiences and opinions.  Hopefully you find it helpful.

Happy Educating, Carla

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Jeena Valentine said...

I love this article! Do you have a printable version I could share with my Pre-K families? Thank you~

Anonymous said...

OH PLEEEEEZE give us a printable version!!!!!! sooo true and I LOVE your words!

Louise said...

Hi there, having just completed some studies in brain development in early childhood, I appreciate the clarity of your summary and the passion of your message. Glad I have found you.

Sheryl said...

This is a wonderful post on brain development! I just shared it with my preschool families. Thank you!

Anonymous said...

WOW! thank you that you share your ideas and facts about on how the preschooler's brain works. :)