Wired for Learning Part 1: Use It or Lose It

This is the first of a series of three special blog posts that look at how a young child’s brain is “wired” to learn. Join me as we share exciting new findings and ways we can support our children’s extraordinary brain development.

When babies are born, their brains are ready to learn. Imagine what newborns are thinking in their first minutes of life as they feel their first human touch, open their eyes to bright lights and new surroundings, hear unmuffled sounds, breathe interesting scents and realize food has taste. If adults were given this much new information at one time, many of us would surely be in sensory overload, longing for the comfort and quiet of the womb!

Children’s brains grow as they learn, but not in the same way adult brains do. On February 27, I was privileged to hear Dr. Patricia Kuhl and Dr. Andrew Meltzoff speak about the groundbreaking research they are conducting at the Institute for Learning & Brain Sciences at the University of Washington in Seattle. Through an advanced brain-imaging technology, they are able to watch the activity that occurs in the brain when babies perform different activities. I was surprised to discover that children’s brains are age-specific and not mini versions of adult brains. It reminded me of an ancient Hebrew proverb: Do not confine your children to your own learning, for they were born of another timenot only in another era, but also at a different stage of life.

Did you know that children are born with all of the brain cells, or neurons, they will ever have? That means that a newborn’s brain has more neurons than at any other time in life! Unfortunately we cannot grow new neurons. Learning occurs when neurons connect with each other, forming a synapse. These critical connections make up human intelligence, and they occur when we have new and repeated experiences.

This means that every time a child sees an object or person, hears a sound, feels a touch, tastes a new food or smells a scent, his neurons begin to connect and form synapses. The more these synapses are used, the stronger the connections become. As the synapses continue to be used and strengthened by repeat experiences, the brain is “wired” to remember the connections automatically and permanent learning occurs.

Between birth and age 5, synapses multiply. A newborn has approximately 2,500 synapses per neuron, but a 3-year-old has 15,000 – twice that of the average adult! By age 5, a child’s brain volume is 92 percent complete. (No wonder we can’t fool a kindergartener!) From age 6 to puberty, the synapses that are not used frequently begin to prune, or delete, themselves. This makes the first 2,000 days of a child’s life the most critical for learning because that is when the brain can form the most synapses. After  this time the synapses will continue to form, but at a slower rate. So I guess there’s still hope for me!

How can we parents encourage synaptic connections instead of synaptic pruning during this vital time in a child’s development? Look out for Part II of our series, which will explore how we can use our understanding of brain science to maximize children’s language development.

In the meantime, you might want to check out this amazing video from the Center on the Developing Child at Harvard University that shows how a baby’s brain cells connect.

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