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Your children are living in a three-dimensional world. Full of people, plants, animals… and a whole host of things to engage with and make sense of. Wherever you are located, whatever philosophies your setting follows, and whatever environments you have available, your children are surrounded by wonder. With voices to interpret, social skills to understand, dangers to be aware of and emotions to fathom.

This is an awful lot of things to learn within bodies that are growing and developing daily. Changing how they feel, how they respond and how they can move. Because of this, they are born with a brain that is eager to learn and hungry to make sense of their world. This powerful motivation to learn will see them driven to explore and understand their surroundings, even when you wish they would not!

Whether you consider pulling over the big pot of paint… again… a desirable experience or not, the learning opportunities for a child are just too rich to resist. A few years later, and they will have found other ways testing the boundaries of their environment and relationships. It is only when their efforts are fruitless or met with resistance that they learn not to bother, and frustration, boredom and difficult behaviours may follow. So, if you want to protect your floor, and keep this powerful motivation to learn in place, understand what is going on and provide them with experiences they can explore.

So what is going on in that developing brain and why do our children behave in the ways that they do?

It is amazing to think that as you look into the eyes of a new-born that they already have most of the 100 billion neurons or brain cells that you have contained within your adult brain. And yet at birth, a child’s brain will have been around a quarter of the size of yours. So, what is changing? Where is this growth and development coming from?

It is coming from the connections being formed between these brain cells – somewhere in the region of 1,000 trillion connections to wire up an adult brain. And these connections are being made through every single experience a growing child is exposed to – whatever they may be.

Children are born with some primitive structures already established in their brain. You will have seen this when a baby instinctively knows to grasp your finger, to turn their head as their cheek is rubbed, or the way they will fling out their arms and legs when they are startled. These are known as the primitive reflexes and are hardwired into every new life as a survival mechanism.

Other kinds of knowledge, they must learn along the way, such as what happens to their toy when they can no longer see it, or why their friend is experiencing an emotion right now that they are not… their friend seems upset, but they are quite happy now that they have the red trike! So, how does brain development happen and what exactly is going on? How do we even begin to understand everything we need to? And how are these connections being made?

Our mature brains have learnt to translate a multitude of sensory information. This comes from our eyes, our eardrums and our fingertips. Once our brain receives this sensory input, it systematically rearranges and transforms it, using memories from our past experiences to create a complex yet coherent interpretation that allows us to operate in this complex world. We can make out the face of a loved one in a crowd, we can make sense of a conversation in a noisy environment, and we can make decisions and act on them.

Our brains have become so good at this complex process that we take it for granted – until something goes wrong. But just like many other skills we have learnt along the way; this takes lots of opportunities to practice.

During early childhood, their young brain is around twice as active as yours, reaching a peak at around the age of 3 when they are more connected, and more flexible than at any other time of their life. From this point on, the brain becomes selective in the connections it keeps, with those connections triggered by the experiences they have more often, considered to be more important.

While some of the basic wiring is predetermined, for all the rest… they are looking to those around them for guidance. And every opportunity they can find to explore. So how does this learning happen?

At a fundamental level, children are basically experiential learners. This means that their knowledge and understanding of the world comes from every experience they have within it – the good ones and the bad! And as they strive to make all the connections they need, we need to remember that this is a learning process, and they will make mistakes along the way. How these opportunities are offered, and the way a child experiences them is then making a massive difference within this process. And the choices you make are essential.

Everything from how you connect as you play, offering them choices as they explore their own ideas, or whether group times with predetermined expectations or planning, can dominate. Whether you explore your local environment, talking about the sounds and smells all around you. Even that time you took your shoes and socks off just to feel the wet grass or cool paint between your toes. Through these experiences you are changing not only the hardwiring of their brain, but also the ways in which they will react to any new experience and the new opportunities that come their way.

They are learning to deal with every new situation, informed and enhanced by every previous experience they have had of something similar. They are learning what to expect from the people they meet, and the reactions they might expect from their own actions. And they are also learning about where their efforts and attentions are best placed. During these early years you are literally growing and shaping your children’s brains, defining them as a person in ways that will be with them for life. So, embrace every opportunity with your children as you play, engage and experience this amazing world of sights, sounds, smells, tastes and textures together.

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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