Rich experiences—from play to the arts and relationships—fundamentally shape a young child’s development.
When Albert Einstein was a child, few people—if any—anticipated the remarkable contributions he would make to science. His language development was delayed, worrying his parents to the point of consulting a doctor. His sister once confessed that Einstein “had such difficulty with language that those around him feared he would never learn.” How did this child go from potential developmental delays to becoming, well, Einstein?
Part of the answer to that question is symbolized in two gifts that Einstein received from each of his parents when he was five years old. When Einstein was in bed all day from an illness, his father gave him a compass. For Einstein, it was a mysterious device that sparked his curiosity in science. Soon after, Einstein’s mother, who was a talented pianist, gave Einstein a violin. These two gifts challenged Einstein’s brain in distinctive ways at just the right time.
Children’s brains develop in spurts called critical periods. The first occurs around age 2, with a second one occurring during adolescence. At the start of these periods, the number of connections (synapses) between brain cells (neurons) doubles. Two-year-olds have twice as many synapses as adults. Because these connections between brain cells are where learning occurs, twice as many synapses enable the brain to learn faster than at any other time of life. Therefore, children’s experiences in this phase have lasting effects on their development.
This first critical period of brain development begins around age two and concludes around age 7. It provides a prime opportunity to lay the foundation for holistic education for children. Four ways to maximize this critical period include encouraging a love of learning, focusing on breadth instead of depth, paying attention to emotional intelligence, and not treating young children’s education as merely a precursor to “real” learning.
Encourage a Love of Learning
Young children need to enjoy the process of learning instead of focusing on performance. Educators and parents can emphasize the joys of trying new activities and learning something novel. We need to help children understand that mistakes are a welcome, normal part of learning.
This period is also the time to establish a growth mindset—the belief that talents and abilities are developed through effort instead of being innately fixed. Educators should avoid labeling children or making universal statements about their ability. Even compliments such as “You’re so smart” are counterproductive. Instead, emphasize persistence and create safe spaces for learning. Children will learn to love learning if we show enthusiasm over the process rather than fixating on results.
Focus on Breadth, Not Depth
One way to avoid focusing on results during this phase of development is to emphasize the breadth of skill development over depth. Exposing children to a wide variety of activities lays a foundation for developing skills in a range of fields. This is the time to engage children in music, reading, sports, math, art, science, and languages.
In his book Range, David Epstein argues that breadth of experience is often overlooked and underappreciated. Focusing on excellence in a single activity may be appropriate at some point in life. But 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.
Well-roundedness is especially important for children from ages 2 to 7. Their developing brains are ready to soak in a wide range of skill sets. This “sampling period,” as Epstein calls it, is integral. This is the window during which to develop children’s range. There is plenty of time for them to specialize later.
Don’t Overlook Emotional Intelligence
Yes, we want children to read well and learn the fundamentals of math. But we should not disregard emotional intelligence. The advantages of learning during this first critical period of brain development should extend to interpersonal skills such as kindness, empathy, and teamwork.
Daniel Siegel and Tina Payne Bryson explain the importance of developing children’s empathy in their book The Whole-Brain Child. Empathy begins with acknowledging one’s feelings. Therefore, they suggest helping children in this age group to first label their emotions (“I feel sad”) and then tell the story about what made them feel that way (“I feel sad because I wanted ice cream and you said no”). Once children practice labeling emotions, educators can start asking questions that encourage them to consider others’ feelings.
One way to encourage care for others is to include children in what adults do for others. Even allowing young children to help with chores can make them more helpful and considerate people.
Don’t Treat Young Children’s Education as Merely a Precursor to “Real” Learning
Children’s brains can uniquely absorb information during this critical phase. If intelligence is defined as the ability to learn, children between the ages of 2 and 7 may be the most intelligent humans on the planet.
Research suggests that some skills cannot be learned nearly as well after this first critical period of brain development. For example, research shows that children in this age range are best suited to learn the patterns of language development, enabling them to master a second language to the same level as a native language. However, once children reach age 8, their language learning proficiency decreases, and second languages are not spoken as well as native ones. The same age effect is found when learning musical abilities such as perfect pitch.
It is noteworthy that Einstein’s parents did not enroll him in physics lessons—the field that would lead him to a Nobel Prize. Instead, Einstein’s father included him in his work as an engineer. His mother signed him up for violin lessons because she wanted him to love and appreciate music. Both activities worked to develop his young mind holistically. It is tempting to think of early childhood education as a precursor to “real” education. But these may be the years that matter most.