As parents and guardians, we all want to give our children the best opportunities to grow up strong, in both body and mind. While it is important to create safe and structured places for children of all ages to learn and play, this kind of environment is of paramount importance during the first five years of life. The reason for this focus can be summed up in one word, “plasticity.” Scientists and developmental psychologists use this term to describe the ability of a young child’s brain to change and create new neural pathways at an amazing rate. The first five years in a child’s life is the time-frame this plasticity is at its peak. This is the best time to set our young ones on a trajectory toward optimal cognitive development. Below are some things to look for as you create or seek an engaging space that will allow your child to thrive.
The infant brain is extremely malleable and ready to create new neural pathways. Infants are constantly sending out stimulus to the world around them, primarily through crying, and then making sense of the responses that they receive. Therefore, the most important thing that a parent or guardian can do, or look for in a caregiver, is to respond quickly in a nurturing way. Whether the infant is hungry, tired, uncomfortable, or lonely, a quick response lets the infant know that their attempts to communicate will be heard, they are safe, and their needs will be met. It is also extremely important that the response of the caregiver be accompanied by physical touch. The physical touch helps to cement this idea that they are heard and will have their needs met by an adult. Furthermore, the physical contact and heartbeat encountered by being held also creates a feeling of calm, reminding the infant of the womb.
Once an infant’s need for the safety and security of physical touch has been met, then this need will diminish. And then, the child will begin to explore the broader world around them as they enter the toddler phase. As toddlers began to seek outwardly and crawl, their environmental needs change. Toddlers need a safe place to explore, and enough stimulus to feed their brain’s hunger to understand all the shapes, colors, and sounds around them. However, this doesn’t mean that we should throw as much stimulus at the young minds as possible. Toddlers, like anyone else, will become overwhelmed if there is too much going on visually or if things are too loud. An optimal toddler environment would be a play area that is quiet, calming, comfortable, has minimal decor, and easy to navigate. This will allow the toddler to focus their attention on exploring specific items, instead of constantly having to navigate and assess their surroundings. Finally, keep the play area clear of clutter. While a toddler may move their attention between a number of different toys, too many toys to choose from may be overwhelming. This can deter the toddler from doing the important work of exploring.
Two Years Old
By the age of two, our children are beginning to explore the world in increasingly large circles. They learn how their own bodies can do the things that they see the adults around them doing. For this reason, this age sees a jump in both gross and fine motor skill development. According to Dr. Cheryl Wu, a doctor with LaGuardia Place Pediatrics in New York City, “… while every child develops at their own pace, I expect most of my patients to achieve [certain] milestones by their second birthday” (DiProperzio, Parents.com, 2011). These milestones include the ability to jump, climb stairs, scribble, and feed themselves. To help children achieve these goals, it is important that children at this stage of development have plenty of support and small group interaction with peers. This will allow the child to feel confident and to receive the help they need, while engaging in in their exploration with others.
This social interaction is also important for the two year olds, as they are becoming increasingly socially interactive. According to Jessica Mercer Young, a researcher at the Education Development Center, “Children at this age may really enjoy playgroups centered on music or gross motor activity. Sharing is, of course, tricky at this stage…” (DiProperzio, Parents.com, 2011). Again, small groups and attentive supervision will help children navigate the “mine” stage, by allowing for structured practice and modeling of desired behaviors.
Three Year Olds
Three year olds want to do everything, “like Mommy and Daddy.” “l want to do it!” becomes a very familiar phrase at this stage of development. For this reason, it is important to create opportunities for your child to try to do everyday tasks such as eating, cleaning, and even pottying with plenty of coaching. If you are creating a learning environment at home, set aside some time to work with your child each day. This will provide the child with a distraction-free time and allow you an extra measure of patience. If you are looking for a stable learning environment outside of the home, look for environments that will allow for plenty of movement and stimulation in a small-sized group. The National Institute for Early Childhood Education recommends class sizes of 20 or smaller, with no more than 10 children per adult.
Four and Five Years Old (Preschoolers)
By the time your child is ready for a structured preschool environment, your child will be beginning to navigate the world with an increasing amount of independence. They will be learning to construct complex sentences to ask for what they need, working from multi-step instructions, and working with their peers to play or complete tasks. Using these tools, they are ready to begin exploring the world of letters, numbers, and colors, in ways that will prepare them for kindergarten and beyond. Finding an accredited preschool during this stage is essential for a few reasons.
First, the curriculum needs to align with state standards in order to make sure your child is ready to enter into a K-12 education with the strongest framework possible. Missing pieces can make it difficult for students to catch up as they move past this time of high plasticity. Second, accredited preschools must keep their teacher to student ratio at or below state mandated level (1:12 in Indiana), and maintain a safe, stable environment for young learners. Finally, the accredited programs will work with students’ families, creating a more complete and inclusive education for the students. Check for accrediting programs in your state, such as Indiana’s Paths for Quality program.
Parents and teachers alike find joy in watching children learn and grow. It is our privilege to help facilitate their development at every precious stage!