It was a regular scene in the park. A toddler enjoying the swings while her mother tried to help. The toddler insisted on resisting all her mother’s well-intentioned efforts to help her learn how to swing. The little girl struggled as she tried to hop on the swing herself and get it to move. After a few energetic wiggles, she got the swing to move but then the challenge was to keep it moving. After a few futile attempts she realized that it helped if she raised her legs while moving face forward and pull her legs backs while swinging back. After about ½ an hour of struggle and many failed she swung like a pro.
She had learned herself how to swing. Children really are learning machines; they come wired to learn.
Think about it. Your baby daughter took her first steps today and yesterday she was barely able to crawl;
She said ‘Mama’ aloud today and yesterday she was not even cooing;
Today on the road, she surprised you by reading ‘DAD’ on the billboard, when yesterday she could barely identify a letter.
Isn’t it magical? How children learn, how they go from being barely verbal to talking nonstop, from craving unsuccessfully for mobility to cruising like a pro, all in a period 2-3 years.
Yes, moms, it is! And what is even more magical is that all of this is being driven by 1 kg of rapidly growing brain inside your beautiful toddler. The brain which is your baby’s very own learning machine.
Your baby’s brain is growing at an amazing rate during the first 3 years of life. At times during brain development, 250,000 neurons (brain cells in simple words) are added every minute! When your baby was born, she had roughly 100 billion neurons. a number close to the number of stars in the milky way and almost as many neurons as she will have during her life. All learning will happen as these neurons connect to form pathways called synapses.
Think about it! So much learning power compressed in that small cuddly head of your baby.
During the first few years of life, the brain undergoes a series of extraordinary changes. A lot if it is in response to the variety of stimuli she receives; the sounds she hears, the faces she sees, the smells she experiences. And all of what you do; holding her, snuggling with her, cooing to her, reading to her, feeding her, singing to her, managing her meltdown is all aiding that growth.
Experts have identified that in these important early years there are clear ‘Windows of opportunity” which are sensitive periods when a particular kind of learning is more prone to happen. For instance, scientists have determined that the neurons for vision begin sending messages back and forth rapidly at 2 to 4 months of age, peaking in intensity at 8 months. It is no coincidence that babies begin to take notice of the world during this period.
Neuroscientists have also found that language is most readily acquired in the first ten years of life. While children can pick up 6 languages with ease, adults have a harder time learning even one new language.
So, all the casual conversation you do with your toddler when picking up groceries or the lullabies you sing while putting your child to bed are building hundreds of thousands of neural connections enabling her to learn new words and getting ready to speak and read and write later.
Unfortunately, if you miss out in these critical windows of opportunity it is very hard if not impossible to develop these skills later in life.
So, what more can you do to make sure that your child’s genius develops to its full potential.
Lee Raby, a psychologist and postdoctoral researcher at the University of Delaware who led a ground-breaking study in Child Development suggests ‘It seems like, at least in these early years, the parents’ role is to communicate with the child and let them know, ‘I’m here for you when you’re upset, when you need me. And when you don’t need me, I’m your cheerleader,”.
So, keep cheering, keep singing, keep reading and be present in all the special moments you share with your extraordinary learning machine.