Making Connections: How Children Learn
Many parents, child care providers, and volunteers have instinctively understood the importance of the language activities they share with children beginning in the first years of life. These activities are not limited to reading, but also include storytelling, singing, and ordinary exchanges that take place in the course of everyday life. Now, after more than 20 years of focused study, new brain research is confirming the merit of these activities. With the help of new brain imaging technologies, brain researchers are gaining insight on how and why these activities promote early development--not only intellectual growth, but healthy social and emotional development as well. On the basis of this research, many pediatricians place such value on the stimulation children receive when read to at a young age that they have begun to prescribe reading to babies along with regular check-ups and vaccinations.
The neuroscience associated with this research is complicated, but its lesson is simple: babies' brains develop at astonishing rates in the years after birth. Young children have a tremendous capacity to learn from the moment they are born, but optimal development hinges on the experiences provided for them by the adults who take care of them. Scientists have long believed that reading with children creates a context in which learning can occur. Today, however, they have evidence that reading is one of the experiences that actually influences the way young brains develop--that is, the way the brain's circuitry is "wired." 1
But how does this work? At birth children have most of the brain cells, or neurons, they will need for a lifetime of learning, but these brain cells are not yet linked with the complex networks that are needed for mature thought processes to take place. In the early years, young children's brain cells form connection--synapses--very rapidly.
What causes brain cells to form connections? Genes control some of the process, but experience is also a crucial ingredient. Every time a caregiver or volunteer interacts with an infant or toddler, connections are formed. Positive interactions with nurturing caregivers-like the attention children receive when they are read to--profoundly stimulate young brains. This stimulation causes new connections to form neural pathways (we might think of as "learning pathways") and strengthens existing ones.
In the first years of life children form extra synapses. In fact, a three-year-old has twice as many connections as an adult. In the second decade of life, as children move toward adulthood, trillions of extra connections are eliminated. But this is not a random process. Those connections that have been used repeatedly in the early years have become stronger and tend to remain; those that have not been used often enough are shed.
In adolescence young people are losing connections or synapses at a rapid rate, and this may sound worrisome (especially as they approach the age when they begin to think about getting their drivers' licenses). But in fact, the process of shedding excess synapses is perfectly natural and, in fact, beneficial for the human brain. It is something like pruning plants in a crowded garden: the ones that remain can grow larger and stronger. By eliminating seldom-used pathways, the brain leaves room for sturdier, more efficient neural networks. The result is a brain whose "circuitry" is better organized and better suited for learning the more difficult concepts and skills that a young adult needs to master.
The pruning process is therefore critical to optimal brain development. It also explains why early experience is so crucial. Children whose neural pathways have been reinforced by a great deal of positive early experience--including a variety of language activities--will be better off when the brain's pruning process begins.
Reprinted with the permission of the U.S. Department of Education.
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