“No great discovery was ever made without a bold guess.” ~Sir Isaac Newton
Did you know that every time you stop to explore and investigate something new with your child you are building his brain? It’s true. The quality time you spend in discovery with your child is more important than direct instruction, memorization and rote learning. Why? Because you are teaching your child how to THINK and use the world around him as his laboratory!
Young children learn more through manipulating real objects and materials than with a computer or other electronic device. One reason is that children need the multi-sensory input of all the textures, sounds, sights and even smells of REAL LIFE. Their brains use this sensory input to define, sort and categorize the information into workable knowledge than can then be applied to future experiences.
As parents and teachers our job is to support the growth and development of children’s minds through stimulating activities that are both fun and meaningful. In early childhood education we called these activities “hands-on” because the children can really get their hands into the fullness of experience when they can touch, manipulate, explore and discover. Have you ever seen the delight on your child’s face when the “ah-ha” moment of discovery and mastery happens? There is nothing more precious. You can see how a child blossoms in the warmth of your supportive encouragement and how his eyes shine when you take the time to talk to him about what HE is thinking!
All of this builds brains! Continuing research into how the brain develops in the first years of life supports what early childhood teachers have always known…the importance of stimulating, multi-sensory, exploration activities. These activities that are creative, flexible and open-ended are the best for brain development. Perhaps the key word here is “open-ended”. What does that mean? In the context of what you do with your child…it means activities that do not have a “right or wrong” way to do it. This type of activity allows your child’s mind to actively and creatively explore without fear of making a mistake. This is a huge gift to children. In this supportive environment the mind can stretch in all directions.
The famous writer Ralph Waldo Emerson once said, “ The mind once stretched by a new idea, never returns to its original dimension.”
What would you try if you knew you couldn’t fail?
Activities that invite your child to explore unstructured art materials of clay, crayons, markers and plain paper (NOT coloring books) are great examples of open-ended experiments. Children do not learn to draw by coloring in the lines. They learn by drawing! Their first attempts of a self-portrait may have the arms coming out of the head or no body…but it is how children figure out how to draw the human form. Exploring materials like paper tubes and boxes provide your child with opportunities to experiment with size, shape, balance, and structure. These are all skills that relate to science and maths skills they will need in school. By using these activities you are building the understandings that will last a lifetime.
You probably have read something about brain development. It is a very important topic in early childhood education. It is good to review it here in order to see how investigations actually build brains. At birth, an infant’s brain has billions of neurons. The ways in which these neurons will connect depend in par on timing, nature and the quality and quantity of experience the child has over the first 2000 days of life. (Birth to kindergarten)
Research has shown an important correlation between stimulating activities and healthy brain development. Early experiences with learning materials and creative projects actually promotes synaptic grown and increases the brain’s functional capacity. Your child brain grows the fastest in the years between birth and age three. And one of the best ways to encourage this growth is to talk with your child. Amazingly, your child is building vocabulary and understanding even in the time before he can talk. If you use simple words and phrases to describe what you are doing, what you are seeing and hearing… you will find when he does start talking that your child’s vocabulary is very advanced. For example, when walking up the steps…count them! Your child may not be ready to count but he is hearing the words and making a connection to something familiar in his environment. When you are playing in the playground…repeat a word or phrase for what you are doing, You can even make it a song. “Swinging, swinging, swinging on the swing. Up down, up down, swinging on the swing.” In a sense you are “narrating” his life so that he has an understanding of words in context. Talking to your child is essential.
Interestingly, social interaction is also essential to healthy brain development in your child. Interactions with caring adults build a sense of security and safety that prepares your child to deal with stress in life. Playing with other children teaches your child how to share, take turns and be responsible. A study by the US Department of Education found that a child’s capacity for social interaction or “people” skills were a greater indicator of school success than any other factor. The study stated that the ability to be a part of a group, and work cooperatively with others is more important than memorizing the ABC’s or 123’s. This is one reason why preschool programs are so important. They provide the proving ground for children’s beginning social interaction skills.
One-on-one time with your child…sometimes called “Floor time”… is important for building your child’s brain. Get down on your child’s level and see the world from his perspective. Follow his lead as he shows you how to play with his toy. You will not only be building his brain but also his self-confidence and self esteem. When you explore the world together you will be building trillions and trillions of connections between the neurons in your child’s brain. But maybe more importantly…you will both have a lot of fun at the same time!