(Images courtesy of Momentous Institute)
I find it quite incredible to think that the brain is the only organ we are born with that is not fully developed at birth. Experts believe that the brain is actually only fully developed at sometime in our early 20’s! Scientists also now know that the brain is plastic, which means that regardless of age, we can teach it new tricks.
As parents, we have an incredibly important role to play in ensuring that our child’s brain is given the best opportunity to allow it to develop and grow into the best brain it can be, from both a cognitive and social and emotional perspective.
According to many experts, in order to really nourish our child’s brain, we need to get back to basics. I like to think of a child’s brain as needing to be exercised, trained and rested very specifically and age appropriately in order for it to grow to it’s maximum potential. These basics almost form the scaffolding for the brain to then hold and integrate the detail gained from the likes of educational programs and all that it will be offered as an adult.
Basic brain science
The brain is an incredibly complex organ so simplifying it hard but in very basic terms, these three areas are often the ones that people have heard about and the three that today seem to get the most press.
The Pre-Frontal Cortex (PFC) can be thought of as the “Thought Control Tower” because it is largely responsible for our thinking, logic and reason.
The Amygdala and oldest part of the brain acts as the “Alarm Centre” and is responsible for our instinctive fight, flight or freeze reactions – what we would instinctively do in an emergency situation.
The Hippocampus is the memory centre.
The entire brain is comprised of millions and millions of cells and intricate pathways which connect with each other allowing the brain to integrate information from itself and from the rest of the body. This entire process quite literally controls the show, body, mind and spirit.
What does a child’s brain need?
- Age appropriate play and activity
- Real life experience
- The opportunity for boredom
- The opportunity to be creative
- Tolerance for the slower pace of real life
For those of you who would like a bit more detail on each of these, I have expanded on these in the section below.
Our brains are hard wired to need tender loving care, nurturance, connection and love which is why the parent-child bond / attachment / relationship is so incredibly important in building a child’s healthy brain. It is a primal human need to feel like we belong.
AGE APPROPRIATE PLAY AND ACTIVITY
Our brains need us to be active, we are wired to move and play and exercise. Children’s brains therefore have to have age appropriate play and movement in order to start wiring and integrating motor activities appropriately.
I found it fascinating to learn that it is during sleep that our brains process, make sense of, lay down, wire and integrate the information, experiences and teachings gained from the day. For children, when their brains are in constant development, sleep is a vital part to ensuring healthy brain growth and therefore particularly important that they get enough of it.
For more information on how much sleep children need click here.
REAL LIFE EXPERIENCE
Children need lots of opportunities to explore, engage with and be curious of the natural world in which they live. Their brains need to experience, learn to appreciate and identify with the abundance, beauty and rich tapestry of nature offered to them in the real world. In other words exposing them to a wide array of sensory and motor experiences from within the real world is an essential requirement for their developing brains. We live in the real world and, as such, we need our children to function well in the real world so let’s use it to it’s maximum advantage and let it teach our kids and train their brains accordingly. They will then learn to identify with the world they live and play in, therefore it is especially important that they have plenty of time to identify with it.
THE OPPORTUNITY FOR BOREDOM
Boredom is an interesting concept but one, which I believe can be viewed positively in creating the opportunity for thought. It can force a child to think, juggle their thoughts, reflect, come up with ideas and find solutions to seemingly having nothing to do. These thinking pathways need to be developed and given a chance to train for life as an adult which is why I see being bored as a gift to be given to a child and therefore highlight the importance of perhaps leaving them enough time to force them to come up with ideas as to what to play, who to play with and where to play.
THE OPPORTUNITY TO BE CREATIVE
Children’s brains need to be given the opportunity to be creative in as many different arenas as is possible. They need to learn to be creative in their thoughts, their decisions, their solution finding, their play, their actions, their everything. As parents, we need to give them as many opportunities for them to create their own experiences and things and not always live in or copy someone else’s creation. This is one of the main reasons as to why I see boredom as a gift and opportunity for children to train their capacity for being creative. Boredom might be the spark to ignite their imaginations to take them to a place of creativity.
TOLERANCE FOR SLOWER PACE OF REAL LIFE
In this fast paced, digital and media saturated world, I think that children need to develop the capacity for patience, train their powers of focus and develop endurance in their attention spans, delay gratification and tolerate frustration and I believe that the real world offers them one of the best training venues for this.
Too much time spent in the fast, instant virtual world can deny a child’s developing brain the opportunity to train and build these capacities in order for them to acquire these vital life skills.
The virtual world is so fast and so immediate that too much of it can actually cause the Pre-Frontal Cortex to become over-whelmed and therefore sluggish and the Amygdala to become over-active and sent into a heightened state of fight, flight or freeze. This is the exact opposite of what we want to occur – we want our child’s Pre-Frontal cortex to have enough time to process, facilitate and encourage thought, logic and reasoning and for the child to learn to control, through self-regulation, their alarm response so that they don’t live in a heightened state of alarm unless in a situation where they really need it.
To put this in context, think about playing a game of chess virtually versus playing a game of chess in reality. Both worlds offer fantastic opportunities for a child’s developing brain to learn new skills. There is one fundamental difference though. In the real world chess game we have to wait for our opponent to make their move. Just think what that time means for the brain that is forced to wait. This is where the capacity to develop all the skills listed above can happen. The brain that is waiting is having to cope with the delay. In doing this, it gets time to plan, think creatively and ponder. The time spent waiting is giving that brain the opportunity to develop the capacity for patience, to hold attention, continually focus, imagine, create, delay gratification and tolerate frustration. This doesn’t happen as much in the virtual game because the computer / opponent would make its move immediately! The virtual game is faster than the real life game.
I believe that a child’s developing brain can benefit from both situations but in this fast paced, time pressed, rushed world, it is very easy and understandable for parents to gravitate to the virtual partner or playmate in a vast array of arenas. I feel that balance between these two worlds is key and to not let one dominate the other so that the child’s brain can benefit from both.
Every parent will have their own ideas as to what they believe their child’s brain needs and these are just to name but a few of the basic needs I believe are necessary in order to maximize a child’s cognitive and social emotional potential.
In this rushed, fast paced, heavily media influenced world, I feel that kids are sometimes, inadvertently short-changed of some of their most basic needs by well-intentioned parents. As parents, whatever our views, I feel that we have to be very intentional about honoring what we believe our children’s deepest, most basic needs are and take the time to make sure we fulfill them.
For those of you who are interested in this fascinating topic, self-regulation, brain science and the application of it in the child’s world, I highly recommend the following wonderful resource site and signing up for their superb newsletter / blog. The graphics I have used in this blog are all courtesy of this organization. Thank you Momentous Institute!