A guest blog post from Ruth Churchill Dower, Earlyarts

24 Oct

I’ve been thinking a lot recently about how our youngest children’s learning is all about making connections, building patterns of understanding in their brains that help them making meaning of the world and themselves within it. Which is why it’s really important that everything we do to facilitate creative learning environments supports babies and children in doing this for themselves. But how do we do this in the best way for each child if we don’t understand what is happening in their brain and why?

One of my favourite pieces of research is Young Brains (note this link goes straight to the document) commissioned by DFES in 2007, and has helped me form ideas around how we can facilitate more meaningful experiences for babies through creative learning environments. I am always aware of how easy it is to claim that neuroscience research holds all of our answers when, in fact, it’s still an incredibly complex area that we don’t yet fully understand. Not least because the relationship between a baby’s hardwired DNA and their environmental experiences is always changing as they grow. This affects how they make connections in their brains, which in turn holds the key to their personalities, emotional and social development as well as their cognitive and physical growth.

However, there are some basic known facts about the baby’s brain that can help us make a lot of sense as to why early exposure to creative and cultural practice is so important.

When baby is born, its brain is not yet fully developed, but it does have a growth rate that is almost exponential – much higher than at any other time in their life. Up to the age of 3, children form trillions of synaptic connectors (pathways through which knowledge and understanding is formed). Neurons (electrical signals) flow through these pathways connecting one part of the brain to another, enabling that knowledge to cross-reference with other knowledge and therefore become more meaningful.

These synaptic connectors are reduced to half that number by early adolescence, as the brain constantly prunes those which are under-used or completely ignored, leaving room for stronger growth of well-used synapses – just like a rose bush. The selection of which connectors should be made redundant is decided simply on the basis of usage – if it’s not used, it’s pruned. Which is why it’s so important to expose children to creative opportunities from the earliest stages in life, so that the synapses that are predisposed towards creative thinking skills (for instance) will survive those pruning stages.

Research done through MRI scans of babies brains has shown us that creative play-based activities have a direct relationship on helping a rapid blooming of synapses activity, that can lead to the formation of well-rounded personalities, good attachment, self esteem and better mental health.

Despite the enormous potential for knowledge that all young children have, their development of knowledge, skills and dispositions for learning are as largely influenced by their experiences working in tandem with their genetic predispositions. It is therefore crucial to engage these synapses through creative activities as early on as possible, and continue to nurture their potential through engaging cultural experiences as they grow in those early years.

Very excitingly, Harvard University’s Centre on Developing the Child have been producing some great research in this area, and have put together a little video to explain it in terms that everyone can understand, and hopefully this will help us all build better learning environments for our children.

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