How children learn

We know from research in the field of neuroscience that the early years of life hold the most critical periods for brain development (Understanding the Brain: the birth of a learning science (OECD, 2007)). A hundred billion brain cells develop in the nine months that a mother’s womb nurtures a developing person. When the child is born, these billions of brain cells, called neurons, begin to connect to help a child build a useful brain. These connections are called synapses. The number of synapses multiplies to make trillions of connections that form a “map” with increasingly more complex connections. The network of connections influences intellectual capacity, memory, problem solving, and language.

The development of a child’s brain cells is part of human physiology, but the development of many of the synapses connecting these cells is now believed to be influenced by experiences. The brain cells form the framework, but the connections made in childhood determine what happens to that framework.

The early years therefore form the period during which a child’s brain has the greatest hope for growth and development. The synapses are constructed and strengthened in response to experiences. Expanding from this base then develops more complex connections.

Taking inspiration from Reggio Emilia and becoming aware of the way in which children make connections in order to build knowledge shows the importance of providing an enabling environment and opportunities which support deeper learning. One way to support this deeper learning is through listening to a child and by repeating what a child might say and then we can elaborate on it; give a child time to respond and communicate in different languages of expression, not only in general conversation.

When an adult or a child engages with another child, you might see a child becoming excited or particularly happy. Scientific research tells is that synapses are strongest when the learning has a function and therefore through interaction there is stimulation. The thrill a child experiences from asking why, what, and when questions may come from a synapse connecting. One of those eureka moments…

It is therefore important to provide opportunities for children to make choices, independent decisions and also those relating to memories. We do this because the act of decision making not only gives a child a sense of control but also allows a child to build connections between thoughts. Common examples include opportunities to sort, to match and to name.

Building memories

As adults we tend to take our memory for granted, however the way we remember events during our lives can be key to our development. Researchers at the Bauer Memory Development Lab at Emory University in Atlanta examine how our knowledge base develops in childhood and how it changes when we are adults. This research tells us that young children tend to forget events more rapidly than adults do because they lack the strong neural processes required to bring together all the pieces of information that go into a complex autobiographical memory. Emory psychologist Patricia Bauer explains, “you have to learn to use a calendar and understand the days of the week and the seasons. You need to encode information about the physical location of the event. And you need development of a sense of self, an understanding that your perspective is different from that of someone else.”

Awareness of others

The development of social skills is also believed to be dependent on synapses that help a child understand how to engage each other and to interact with adults. By pointing out how other people around a child are feeling, we can help children to develop references for what to expect from other people and how to treat others.

Every day we see children not only making connections between memories and building on their knowledge, but they also start to make connections between each other, whether this is by showing an affinity for a particular child, an emotional bond, empathy or an awareness of others.

Children frequently look to each other to support their learning and development amongst their friends and also across age groups. Whether it is a toddler providing comforters or toys to visibly upset friends, or pre-schoolers offering each other a steady hand in the playground. Children learn through interaction and observing others, highlighting the importance of role modelling by parents and educators alike.


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