Building Childrens Brains

September 28, 2020

Simply in evolutionary terms, children are vulnerable for a very long time.  As a parent it feels like a massively long time when they are still raiding your fridge at 26 years old!  Most of our development is neurological and we create millions of neurological connections within the first three years of our lives.  This only slows slightly at three until we are five years old when it slams on the breaks and then crawls along quite happily, topping up the connections as and when until the child hits puberty.  Physically, many animals are born capable of tasks that will allow then to meet their basic needs and are independent of their parents very quickly.  Often the thing that dictates the length of childhood, is the complexity of the tasks the newborn has to learn.  If life will be simple and needs led, such as pecking for grain, sleeping and laying the odd egg then life is quite easy to get the hang of and very little guidance and neurological growth is needed. Therefore childhood for a chicken is brief as they reach maturity within 18 to 21 weeks.  Other animals such as horses, cows, rabbits and even spiders can walk, forage or even be independent immediately after birth.  However, if the organisms life will be complex and demanding physically, psychologically  or neurologically; if it requires a great deal of knowledge and understanding that must be gained from others; then gaining these abilities takes considerably longer.  Hence the fridge raiders at 26 years old! 

Building the Circuitary

The basic architecture of our brain is created in the first three years and is mainly complete by five years old.  That means you are sitting as an adult reading this passage using a brain that is created by and reliant on the neurological structures you made while playing in the sandpit or singing nursery rhymes or making mud pies.  We understand that children’s brains develop by making synaptic connects and then a process of myelination of the axons that link the synapses.  To imagine this is really hard for many but a very simple (and not very accurate but useful) way to think about this is imagine swimming foam noodles with connectors.  The noodles are the axons and the connectors are the synapses.  Now imagine wrapping that connection in sellotape over and over again and how strong that connection will become.  I am sure neurologists will be horrified by that explanation but it’s just about understanding that there is a hub connected to other hubs with axons and that the more that is reinforced by use and the myelination process (wrapping the fibre in fatty tissue) the stronger and more permanent the connections become. 

This process creates the architecture of the brain, the structure that creates the density and without that the brain does not form its basic structure.  If a child experiences neglect, trauma or deprivation then the brain cannot develop the structures it needs.  The way I try to explain it to practitioners and parents is the difference between salt dough and cornflower play.  Now if you haven’t tried playing with salt dough and cornflour (I would suggest you do because it’s really fun and calming) but the key bit of the comparison is that salt dough is solid, maintains its structure whereas cornflour can be quickly worked into a structure using movement but will quickly slide through your fingers the minute you stop the movement or pressure. 

So what builds the neurological circuits that creates the architecture of the brain?  Experience.  Every experience a child has from a sneeze to listening to a story to eating a new food… everything builds brain architecture.  The brain needs continual sensory input to create connections and every time the child engages with the world their bodies will feed the information of the interaction to the brain that will use it to interpret the contexts but also feedback information to the body about the actions it needs to take.  These feedback loops between the brain, the body and the environment allow the brain to create connections to allow further interactions to be more successful and effective and we become more competent at engaging within our environment.  So now we understand the basics what do we do with that?

Our understanding of neurology is developing at an exponential rate and to stay abreast of the current findings is a job in itself, but we believe this basic architecture of the brain includes key life-long functions such as emotional control, language, and habitual ways of responding and peer social skills, which are already developed prior to school.  A young child is a biologically driven learning machine.  They are driven to learn by their biological urge to survive because their brain needs the input to build itself.  The more they learn the better their chances of survival and that includes, amongst others, physical abilities, social skills, communication and basic needs provision.  Children will learn no matter what you do.  To stop a child learning is actually really hard and requires a lot of work but to help a child learn is quite simple.  You just have to get out of their way.  You can add loads of support and effective opportunities for learning and development to the journey, but the basic request is just to get out of their way.  They know what they need to learn and are intrinsically compelled to learn it.  This compulsion comes from their brains and bodies screaming at them to seek the learning and development opportunities and experiences they need.  How often have you met a parent that explains that their child started to learn to walk but then fell over a couple of times so has decided this whole walking thing isn’t for them, so they are just going to crawl for the rest of their lives?  What child staggers across a room from one sofa to another and goes, “Oooh that’s hard work… I’ll just lie here for the next 80 years rather than learn that!”  It just doesn’t happen and the reason is that children are biologically driven to learn the skills they need to operate in the world.  Children are resilient and will keep trying over and over again until they get it.  The people in their life just need to recognise that and support that journey and stop messing it up

 

Our understanding of neurology is developing at an exponential rate and to stay abreast of the current findings is a job in itself, but we believe this basic architecture of the brain includes key life-long functions such as emotional control, language, and habitual ways of responding and peer social skills, which are already developed prior to school.  A young child is a biologically driven learning machine.  They are driven to learn by their biological urge to survive because their brain needs the input to build itself.  The more they learn the better their chances of survival and that includes, amongst others, physical abilities, social skills, communication and basic needs provision.  Children will learn no matter what you do.  To stop a child learning is actually really hard and requires a lot of work but to help a child learn is quite simple.  You just have to get out of their way.  You can add loads of support and effective opportunities for learning and development to the journey, but the basic request is just to get out of their way.  They know what they need to learn and are intrinsically compelled to learn it.  This compulsion comes from their brains and bodies screaming at them to seek the learning and development opportunities and experiences they need.  How often have you met a parent that explains that their child started to learn to walk but then fell over a couple of times so has decided this whole walking thing isn’t for them, so they are just going to crawl for the rest of their lives?  What child staggers across a room from one sofa to another and goes, “Oooh that’s hard work… I’ll just lie here for the next 80 years rather than learn that!”  It just doesn’t happen and the reason is that children are biologically driven to learn the skills they need to operate in the world.  Children are resilient and will keep trying over and over again until they get it.  The people in their life just need to recognise that and support that journey and stop messing it up.

Now I am aware that as I am explaining this, you will be able to think of many children that will choose not to learn; eight year olds desperately avoiding recorder practice; 13 year olds finding any excuse not to do their maths homework (or in fact engaging in any maths whatsoever) and 18 year olds dragging their feet submitting their history essay that’s due in tomorrow.  The common theme is that these skills are not necessary to operate in the modern world successfully and the learning experiences we subject our children to are often arbitrarily selected and deemed as important by someone else.  This is just a systemic and institutionalised approach to getting in a child’s way.  Just because it’s a whole institution doing it doesn’t make it any more acceptable or useful.  A new game comes out that everyone is playing and your child can learn it almost instantaneously and know more about it in minutes than you can possibly learn with hours of YouTube videos and incessant practice.  Fortnite came out and videos circulated of whole crowds of children spontaneously and simultaneously bursting into dance at the sound of the songs from the game because they were motivated to learn them and share them.  Now you could argue that pre-Revolutionary France is a more useful learning experience consolidated in that A-Level history paper your 18 year old is avoiding than the random dance moves a character in a game displays.  You could.  However I would argue that for the children, one is motivating learning and creating physical agility and a collective social experience and one is creating an ability to procrastinate in inventive and ingenious ways.  Both are learning…. I know which one is more likely to have a positive lasting impact.  Our children are likely to still be able to ‘floss’ in 20 years’ time assuming their back will manage it.  I doubt your 18 year old will remember much about pre-revolutionary France an hour after submitting the paper.  I would put half decent money on the bet that 20 year later, your 18 year old will barely remember the paper at all and if they do, it will possibly be as a task they hated doing, rather than the basis of their understanding of the political system of France.  Think back, do you remember the random stuff you learnt in geography or the book you read in English in your first year at senior school?  But I bet when those random videos pop up on whatever social media tool you use that say, “ You know you grew up in the 80’s if you remember this..” and random sweet packets, cartoon characters and song lyric’s float past your eyes, you can place most, if not all of them, in your childhood.   I cannot ‘Floss’ and when I try I seem to be doing some sort of self-soothing rocking motion that could get me mistaken for someone at the end of a long night which included some dubious drinking games.  That said, I can still do the YMCA, Saturday Night and the Locomotion.  To each generation their shameful dances, but this is learning that lasts because it is motivating, fun and a shared social experience with your peers. 

We expect learning to be hard and boring and probably an experience of being ‘done to’.  Real learning, the learning that impacts our lives is engaging, it’s intrinsically motivated and is active.  It might be hard and complicated and challenging… it might even hurt but it will change the way we see the world and engage within it.  Children are not afraid to learn.  We learn to be afraid of learning by becoming fearful of mistakes and failure.  We learn to avoid right and wrong answers because we feel judged and found as wanting.  We need to stop teaching our children this.  We need to help our children to keep their motivation and excitement of learning and development and then maybe our next generation may be ready to meet the challenges of our future. 

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