“Children are the world’s most valuable resource and its best hope for the future.” This quote is attributed to President John F. Kennedy and sums up what many, many people believe to be true.
For this reason, it seems especially important to nurture young minds and to grow their unique gifts and talents. While talent development is important in people of all ages, it is especially important in the youngest of children. In the PBS series entitled, “The Brain with David Eagleman,” Dr. Eagleman explains that in the brain of a newborn baby, the neurons are only starting to connect, but by age 2, the brain may have developed well over 15,000 connections. Neurons in our brains connect at an especially rapid pace in early childhood. As we age, neurons are pruned as a result of what we are learning. As we grow and learn, we reduce the number of connections because our brains focus on a smaller number of reinforced connections. Our circuitry becomes specific. We “use it or lose it” with our brain cells. Brain circuitry is wired according to experiences and interactions with our environment.
So, what kind of experiences and environment do we want to provide for our children? How do we, as parents and educators create these experiences and environments? And how do we grow gifts and talents in our children, and develop their brains?
While so many toys and gadgets and learning materials and books try to sell us things that will grow our children intellectually, the scientific research is actually geared toward much simpler (and less costly) options.
In this June 20, 2020 article in Edutopia, Why Ages 2-7 Matter So Much in Brain Development, author Rishi Sriram asserts that experiences during early childhood provide lasting effects on their development. Sriram states, “This first critical period of brain development begins around age 2 and concludes around age 7. It provides a prime opportunity to lay the foundation for a holistic education for children.”
The first way to maximize this critical period, according to Sriram, is to encourage a love of learning. Learning for young children encompasses so many things. It can be a love of nature, a love of cooking or trying new foods, a love of building things, creating things, destroying things, questioning things, reading about things, and simply experiencing life to the fullest. The possibilities are endless. Encourage exploration! Celebrate curiosity! Provide opportunities! Additionally, this is the time when children make many mistakes, and encouraging a willingness to accept mistakes as a natural part of learning is crucial. By honoring the process of learning, and not just the outcome, children learn to embrace a growth mindset which will serve them well in their lives.
A second way to maximize this critical period is to focus on breadth of learning instead of depth. “Well-roundedness” is an especially important way to learn for young children. Their minds are essentially wide-open, connections are forming, and interests are being piqued and developed. In his book Range: Why Generalists Triumph in a Specialized WorldDavid Epstein argues that breadth of experience is often overlooked and underappreciated. He asserts that “the people who thrive in our rapidly changing world are those who first learn how to draw from multiple fields and think creatively and abstractly. In other words, our society needs well-rounded individuals.” There will be many years for children to begin focusing on fields of study, but during this crucial time, being a minds-open generalist is preferred.
A third way to maximize this critical period is to pay attention to emotional intelligence and social and emotional learning. Parents and educators can help by teaching children to recognize, regulate, and communicate their emotions. They can teach successful strategies to manage emotions and create healthy lifestyles. For example, helping children understand the importance of kindness, empathy, and teamwork will be necessary skills for success in their lives. Again, the window of opportunity is wide open during these critical years.
Finally, educators and parents must honor this time period in their children’s lives not as a precursor to “real learning,” but as “real learning” itself. It is common, at least in the USA, to hear of classes for children three and four years old described as “preschool,” when in fact it is real learning, just as later school years provide real learning experiences. Learning during this period is setting the stage for years to come. During this time, children learn how to learn, how to manage time, energy, frustration, tools, and a myriad of other things. “Back in the day” :) children were considered integral parts of the work of the family. They worked and learned alongside their parents and siblings beginning at very early ages, and engaged in “real learning” and real-life skill building. Nowadays we can use family chores and routines as ways to encourage children to value every day, boots-on-the-ground practical skills which will enhance the book learning to come.
During this holiday season, our social media feeds and television commercials are filled with things to buy for our children. While it is tempting to think that some of these items will somehow make our children smarter or give them a competitive advantage, perhaps it is the simple things that will make the difference in the lives of our children. None of these things cost a lot of money; they do, however require an investment of time and love. It’s worth considering.
As always, I welcome your thoughts and ideas. Together we grow.
Jackie Drummer, Past President
WI Association for Talented and Gifted
(Thank you to German Diaz of Milwaukee Public Schools for translating this article into Spanish for parents and educators.)
Gifted in Perspective
A column designed to link the gifted perspective to other perspectives, and to make you think.