There is much to be said for the value of providing young children with a wide variety of learning opportunities, even from a very young age.
Similar to constructing a house, brains are built upon a strong foundation. Much like lumber is a raw material in building a house, a child’s experiences and interactions help build the structure, put in the wiring, and paint the walls. Before birth, the brain produces trillions more neurons and “synapses” (connections between the brain cells) than it needs. During the first years of life, the brain undergoes a series of extraordinary changes.
In the brain, the neurons are there at birth, as well as some synapses. As the neurons mature, more and more synapses are made. At birth, the number of synapses per neuron is 2,500, but by age two or three, it’s about 15,000 per neuron. The brain eliminates connections that are seldom or never used, which is a normal part of brain development.
“Windows of opportunity” are sensitive periods in children’s lives when specific types of learning take place. For instance, scientists have determined that the neurons for vision begin sending messages back and forth rapidly at 2 to 4 months of age, peaking in intensity at 8 months. It is no coincidence that babies begin to take notice of the world during this period.Bulletin #4356, Children and Brain Development: What We Know About How Children Learn
To support a high-quality educational experience, providing a healthy variety of cognitive activities is critical.
Cognitive activities promote:
Basic thinking skills – What could I do?
When a child is first introduced to a toy or activity, they usually automatically begin to play with the materials in a way they see fit. Providing a variety of materials to manipulate, encourages the child to think about “how” and “what” to do and promotes those first learning opportunities.
Cause and effect learning – If I do this, then that will happen…
A perfect example of this is color mixing. Using playdough or paint is the easiest way to allow children to experience this type of exploration. Some educators may show children color mixing by initially using clear containers of water and adding food coloring, so the children see the change happening in real-time.
Problem-solving skills -What are the choices?
Providing children with an activity that has multiple ways of accomplishing the task successfully, encourages logical thinking and flexibility. This is easily accomplished through patterning or shapes-related activities where the colors a child uses are open-ended.
Critical thinking skills – What should I do?
These types of skills are often helped through reading books and asking questions, such as: what might happen next? What would you do if you were in this situation? Has this ever happened to you? And, what did you do? Opportunities for teamwork and team-based problem solving can also promote critical thinking.
All of these skills are important because they create building blocks for future learning. The more opportunities that children have to practice these skills in real, interactive environments, the greater the likelihood they’ll be able to recall their previous experiences and begin to develop familiarity with expectations, scenarios, and similar situations. Each type of engagement speaks to a different way to approach learning and obtaining information to solve challenges and make choices. For more activities, be sure to check out options available from HiMama!
Incorporating these activities into your environment by creating hands-on opportunities that focus on characteristics, such as:
- Textures (i.e. rough, smooth)
- Colors (i.e. primary, secondary, tertiary, shading/grading lightest to darkest)
- Sizes (i.e. large, medium, small)
- Similarities and differences (i.e. sorting opportunities – fruits/vegetables, plants/animals, land/air/water creatures, types of transportation, etc.)
These activities promote cognitive development by:
- Speaking to the senses
- Promoting hand-eye coordination
- Building new pathways for learning
- Promoting repetition of familiar activities
- Encouraging opportunities for success
- Creating opportunities for dependence
Through the practice of providing a wide variety of activities within early education, we provide children with a well-rounded, rich environment to develop an innate love of learning. Children learn best when they are given opportunities to be successful. And, as educators, we can take big ideas and concepts and present them or make them available in simple ways that very young children can learn and understand.
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