There is a major focus on pushing young children to learn academics at earlier ages. Of course this is all well intentioned. Everyone’s goal is for children to be successful in school and in life. But, if this is the focus and desire for children, it is essential that the knowledge that science is providing for us is used for the base of the experiences children are having every day.
Previous to technical advances, scientists were not able to study active brains. Early childhood education was based on behavioral studies and theories. Scientific evidence has now been available for many years and should be making a remarkable difference for all children. However, for some reason this is not always the case.
When you ask a child what is it that they want to do most, is the common answer, “I want to do lots of worksheets.”? No, what children express is their desire to play! Children are born ready to learn. They naturally want to explore, move and figure out what they can do and what this world is all about. This happens through play. And play is exactly what a developing brain needs. Play contributes greatly to the all important development of better math, language, problem-solving and social skills. Evidence also shows that play is very effective for the reduction of the effects of stress on the brain.
Through “hands on” experiences young children are learning about their environment and how things work. Just think about how everything is new to them. They need to use all of their senses and try things out in various ways. Through play children find out that they can make things happen and they have an effect on their world.
You will also commonly see children do the same actions repeatedly. Through repetition the brain verifies that what it is experiencing is true and creates strong pathways for functioning in life.
Picture a child in a high chair with a ball. After learning about the ball through putting it in his mouth, the child will likely throw it on the floor. He will lean over and watch the ball bounce and roll. He will motion to have an adult give him the ball again. He needs to throw the ball again so his brain can see that it will bounce and roll again. After he has had enough food to eat, he may throw any extra food on the floor to see if it bounces and rolls like the ball did. He is learning about the similarities and differences between all the interesting things he comes in contact with everyday. In the early months and years his brain is making connections between brain cells at a rate of 700 per second through these types of experiences.
To create optimal learning these connections need to be made through interactions with real objects. He will not learn how a ball bounces and rolls if he only sees a picture of it on a flash card. He also will not know how a ball feels by watching a ball on a screen. When children are only exposed to screens, worksheets or flashcards, this is a missed opportunity for real learning and strong connections being made in the brain.
Play also provides the incredibly important opportunity for the development of a child’s muscles. Essential wiring in a child’s brain takes place through the repeated movements during physical activities. When children are sitting still doing activities that are said to promote learning, children are actually not learning as much as they could if they were playing instead. Scientific research demonstrates direct interaction creates much more brain activity than observing.
It is necessary to not only have play take place at home, but children need developmentally appropriate explorative and imaginative play and also lots of physical activity opportunities at school. A newborn is not expected to crawl, a 2 month old to ride a bike, or a 6 month old to play the guitar. We do not expect those things because we know babies are not developed enough for those skills or activities. It is the same for academics and a young brain. We should not be pushing babies to read and 3 year olds to write. These are not the experiences they should be having to support the healthiest brain connections for later learning and life skills.