Children’s amazing brains: playing, learning, thinking, growing

Neuroscientists and developmental researchers are contributing valuable insights about how children learn. The Center on the Developing Child at Harvard University is documenting how critical early childhood experiences prepare children for successful lives. Much like the Marshmallow Test of decades ago, children who demonstrate “executive function” and “self-regulation” have greater success in school, in relationships and for lifelong health.

The exciting news from Harvard Center is that “brains are built, not born”. These cognitively high functioning, socially adaptable and emotionally resilient brains are not built from flashcards; they are built from active engagement in real world situations. Brains, like athletic muscles, need exercise and practice to grow.

The three skills that the Harvard researchers find essential to building strong brains are: inhibitory control, working memory and mental flexibility. An example of these skills, from the Harvard video Executive Function: Skills for Life and Learning, is a child learning to take turns. The child must stop and let another take their turn. The child must then remember what it is he was doing when it’s time for his turn. And throughout the experience, he must be prepared for something unpredictable and adjust. Recognizing that these skills are built not born in children, we can look at all the ways we teach and support these skills in every day ways.

Inhibitory Control
Children gain inhibitory control when they come up against the natural limits and boundaries of living in the world. From the first “no” that stopped them from danger or the “time for bed” when they were beyond tired. Self regulation is the ability to think and feel at the same time – to discover peace on the other side of frustration, to stop eating candy before the tummy ache and to postpone immediate gratification. Real life, however, is complicated so children need lots of short term practice, especially through play, to reinforce this very challenging skill:

• Singing and dancing to the Freeze song
• Playing Red Light Green Light or Simon Says
• Driving toy cars on roads or coloring within lines (an act of restraint not art)
• Cooking or baking – following directions and waiting for final result
• Laughing at books where characters have no control – David Shannon’s David books or Jane Yolen’s How Do Dinosaur series, even those Monkeys Jumping on the Bed

Working Memory
Children who are just learning time concepts and the laws of cause-and-effect are very much building “working memory” from daily experience. E.G., parents who leave for work return again in a few hours; if I throw this cup on the floor, the milk spills all over the floor; or, I get cranky when I miss my nap. Working memory requires experience, trial-and-error, and repetition. Like any other physical muscle, it takes time to build. A weight lifter doesn’t begin with hundreds of pounds. A child builds “working memory” slowly over time:

• Talking about what you did today and what you will do tomorrow
• Retelling stories and sequencing events (hence, the silliness of backwards day)
• Playing What’s Missing and Memory games
• Play I’m going on a Vacation and I’m Taking Memory Game (or to the grocery store, to the beach, to grandma’s, etc). Note: Three year olds are better than parents at this!
• Play Don’t Say _____ for a day (choose a color, choose a name, choose a food, etc)

Mental Flexibility
Children are naturally spontaneous and adaptable except when they get stuck in Me-Mine-Now! That’s when patience and humor are needed to smooth over the rough patches. Also, resilience and flexibility are much easier when a child is rested, fortified with healthy food and has a physical outlet for that high energy growing body. Parents are also positive role models for problem solving skills so be sure to verbalize alternative solutions and creative thinking. The opportunities are endless:

• Ask open ended questions daily – what else can we do to make it better? Is there another way to do it? What would happen if ____?
• Rewrite story endings, tell tall tales, tell jokes
• Describe feelings as colors like the book, My Many Colored Days
• Create opportunities for imaginative and pretend play
• Read books like The True Story of the Three Little Pigs, If You Give a Mouse a Cookie, or Sarah Perry’s If book

Real learning is exciting and unpredictable, preparing children to think and act in a world we haven’t seen yet. The neurologists believe children’s brains must work like air traffic controllers – managing lots of airplanes on multiple runways with exquisite timing. Yes, they will still learn to read, write and do arithmetic. But let’s prepare them to take those skills and fly!

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