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During their early childhood, children are learning and experiencing more than at any other time of their lives, and this is especially true in the years before school. With every experience, connections are being formed deep within their brain. Making the structures and pathways that will determine how they think, feel and behave – and respond to all their future experiences. And they are receiving these experiences through their senses.

Through every object they touch, every image they see and every sound they hear, through the flavours they taste and the smells they detect, memories are being formed and messages are being sent. All these sensory inputs are processed in the cerebral cortex, at the front of the brain, along with their thoughts and feelings. This explains why our senses can be so powerful at triggering an emotion - I cannot smell coconut without thinking of holidays on the beach or hear music from the 1980s without being whisked back to my childhood.

When multiple senses are involved in an experience, even more connections are being made. So think for a moment of the experiences you are offering your children and the senses that they are engaging. Imagine slicing open a juicy orange, the vibrant colours, the smell, the juice trickling through their fingers as they grasp its slippery texture before tasting it – now compare this to offering them a plastic one. Think about the textures on your feet right now, possibly inside a sock and shoe, now think about walking barefoot through damp grass or cold, wet sand.

Multi-sensory learning is hugely powerful and is why young children make such good use of it. And we now have the neuroscience to support this. Studies have shown that children raised in a rich environment, where they have been given opportunities to engage in positive, sensory-rich experiences, develop brains more densely packed with these connections. And that early childhood is a critical time for this development to occur. At around three years of age, through processes of synaptic pruning, a child’s experiences are essentially being classified. With those often repeated being identified as worth keeping hold of and strengthened, and others being pruned away as the structure of the brain develops.

Any core experiences that have been missed during this vital time will not be easily made up for in later life. You will have experienced this if you have ever tried to learn a new language as an adult, something young children seem to pick up with ease. Or, if you have spoken to a child from a language poor environment who is now struggling to acquire the speech patterns they are going to need for school.

During this time, no toy or resource is as valuable as the moments of engagement and understanding that you can offer them. Every minute of these precious years should be cherished and seen for the gifts that you can offer them. That doesn’t mean purchasing every item in the catalogue or feeling guilty about the tasks you need to perform – but it does mean connecting with them when you are with them.

Turn off the screens and have a conversation. Be mindful of the expectations you place on them. Look into their eyes and really connect – even during a nappy change. And find time, every day to connect, with every child. Whether this is over a meal, a story or some tummy time. When you appreciate just how engaged their young brains are, and you can respect their powerful drives to explore and understand the world, it becomes more important to facilitate the opportunities they need to meaningfully gain experiences, to investigate and to feel the result of their actions. And to be mindful of the children who may not readily put themselves forward.

As you spend time with the children, be careful not to dampen their motivations. At this age they are learning so much about their desire to learn, and when these desires are met with disapproval, you are effectively teaching them not to bother. Even when this means additional washing.

  • Allow your children the time and opportunities they need to explore
  • Let them experiment at their own pace, repeating and returning to things time and again as they refine their understanding
  • Take the additional time to explore, rather than correct – allowing them to take more from a learning opportunity than the one way of doing something that you already had in mind
  • Allow them to develop their social and communication skills with different age groupings; in a crowd, in small groups and sharing one-on-one time
  • Offer varied opportunities within rich and varied environments full of open-ended opportunities. Where they can explore and experiment with their ideas, rehearsing and reinforcing their ideas through repetition
  • Offer them the time and tools for the job. Along with the permission and understanding to investigate, to manipulate and to try things out, just to see what will happen

And as you do so…

  • Consider whether their touch, sight or hearing, or their sense of taste or smell are being engaged… or could they be?

First and foremost, be sure to value every moment of their early years, when much of this growth is occurring. Engage with THEM, rather than the activity you had in mind. Involve their multiple senses and allow them to combine and adapt their experiences. Allow them time to process their thoughts and feelings, but also be aware of over stimulation by being in tune with their need for space, opportunity to blow off steam, to relax and just be.

And most importantly – ensure your children feel emotionally stable and secure. When they feel relaxed and at ease, within secure relationships, and calm environments, they can turn their attention to all their other pursuits. Your children need you to understand more than WHAT they need to learn – they need you to understand HOW they are internally driven to learn. And how you are laying the foundations of this learning, now – and for all their learning to come.

Understanding children from the inside out is the first session in the new Nurturing Childhoods Accreditation. Offering you a whole new approach to CPD that is tailored to the needs of your setting, and the children and families you work with. With its complete set of materials and guidance, it complements the resources available for your parents, and is underpinned by professional standards. Check out this great new website and together we can surround children with this level of unified understanding of who they are and what they need. And really begin developing the potential of all children in their early years.

About the author:

As Founder of Nurturing Childhoods, Dr Kathryn Peckham is a passionate advocate for children’s access to rich and meaningful experiences throughout their foundational early years. Delivering online courses, training and seminars, she works with families and settings to identify and celebrate the impact of effective childhood experiences as preparation for all of life’s learning. An active campaigner for children, she consults on projects, conducts research for government bodies and contributes to papers launched in parliament. Through her consultancy and research she guides local councils, practitioners, teachers and parents all over the world in enhancing children’s experiences through the experiences they offer. A highly acclaimed author and member of parliamentary groups, Kathryn also teaches a Masters at the Centre for Research in Early Years.

Get in contact with Kathryn by emailing info@kathrynpeckham.co.uk

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