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Why Is Childhood Brain Development So Important?

Learn how the brain develops, what research says about critical developmental periods, and what parents can do to encourage healthy brain development in their children.

By Amit KumarPublished about a year ago 3 min read

Children's brains develop extremely quickly, especially between birth and 3 years of age. In general, the first eight years of a child's life can lay the groundwork for future health and success.

Quality early childhood is critical to proper brain development, according to research, and practically every experience and preschool interactive activities during this time has a profound effect on brain growth. These experiences include interactions with parents, family, and carers, as well as environmental factors and personal experiences. Learn how the brain develops, what research says about critical developmental periods, and what parents can do to encourage healthy brain development in their children.

Brain Development Begins at Birth

A child's brain is influenced by both genetics and experience beginning in utero and continuing after birth. Babies are born with approximately 100 billion neurons, the same number as an adult. These neurons, however, are linked by 50 trillion synapses, whereas adults have approximately 500 trillion such connections. These synapses are critical to cognitive function because they serve as the brain's communication pathways, passing along electrical or chemical signals from neuron to neuron.

A child has approximately 1,000 trillion synapses by the age of three, as natural growth, development, and mental stimulation create new and strengthen existing connections between neurons. Synaptic pruning, on the other hand, begins around this time. During this process, unused synapses are removed in order to maintain more efficient functioning as the body matures.

Some of this synaptic pruning is determined by genetics, but as children grow older, much of the process is driven by external experience. Cognitive stimulation strengthens synapses, whereas inactive synapses weaken and are eliminated during the pruning process.

Consider how the sound of human speech stimulates activity in the brain regions involved in language processing as an example. The more input (speech) is received, the more the synapses in these regions will be activated and therefore strengthened. To put it another way, a child's experiences shape not only what he or she learns, but also how the brain processes information.

During adolescence, synaptic pruning naturally begins to slow down, and it peters out in early adulthood.

The Critical Period

Synaptic connections are flexible during early childhood, allowing the brain to be influenced by what is going on around it. After the critical period, synaptic connections become noticeably less flexible and less susceptible to the influence of outside experience.

One long-term study led by researchers discovered that cognitive stimulation from parents at the age of four was the most important factor in predicting the development of much of the cortex—the brain's "grey matter"—some 15 years later. This was especially true in the lateral left temporal cortex, a critical region of the brain involved in semantic memory, word processing, and general knowledge of the world.

Though neuroplasticity occurs throughout childhood, the first few years are the most formative. Psychologists assert that this critical period is essential for learning new skills. This hypothesis was first proposed by neurologist Eric Lenneberg, who proposed that language is limited to critical periods. While language and other skills can be learned outside of the critical period, Lenneberg cautioned that it is less likely and the outcome is less predictable. He further stated that while we continue to learn throughout life, learning in later years does not begin to match the pace during the early critical period, due to decreased neuroplasticity in the adult brain.

What Can Parents and Caregivers Do to Facilitate Healthy Brain Development?

From birth, parents and early childhood educators can support their child's healthy brain development. The first thing to understand is that all childhood experiences, both positive and negative, have a significant impact on brain development. Children learn and grow best when they are safe, free from neglect, and in the care of parents and other adults who have their best interests at heart.

Positive interactions with children can help parents and preschool learning aids promote healthy brain development. This includes talking to them from a young age, reading to them, involving them in family events, and playing with them on a regular basis. Children, too, require empathy and security, as well as comfort when they are stressed or upset. Responsive, loving care helps children cope with stress better, both during childhood and into adulthood.

The development of the human brain, particularly during childhood, is a major area of research in neuroscience, and we learn more about how the brain works each year. Parents and carers should consider brain development in the context of the whole child and work to create a nurturing, supportive environment in which children receive plenty of cognitive stimulation. This kind of environment can set children up for success throughout life.

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About the Creator

Amit Kumar

Full-time thinker & part-time writer...

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    Amit KumarWritten by Amit Kumar

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