The First 5 Years
The first five years of a child’s life is a critical time for development. During these early years, both body and brain are going through a period of rapid growth. 90 percent of lifetime brain development occurs within this five-year period.
Every experience young children have is an opportunity for learning. These early activities help to lay foundations for later. For example, the more words a child hears during his first few years, the better his language and communication skills will be in later life.
Early cognitive, social, and emotional development is linked with academic progress, social skills, personality, behaviour, and the ability to concentrate as an older child and adult. If certain skills aren’t learned during this time, they can be very difficult to learn later. This is why adults who learn a second language almost always have an accent and may find certain sounds almost impossible to pronounce.
How Experiences Shape Brain Development
While the brain has some limited capacity to generate new brain cells and repair damaged cells in adulthood, generally speaking children are born with the brain cells they will have for the rest of their lives.
Neural connections between these cells are what enable the brain to move, think, and communicate with others. These connections are being built at a rapid pace in the first few years of a child’s life – around one million new connections (synapses) are built a second, which is more than at any other stage of life.
Synapses are built through experiences and interactions with the world, and the amount and type of stimulation children receive in their early years determine the rate of development in different areas of the brain.
By the age of eight months, a baby may have as many as 1,000 trillion synapses. As the brain continues to develop, synapses in the areas of the brain that are not being used are lost. This means that children deprived of a stimulating environment or normal life experiences at an early age may struggle with basic tasks or interactions with other people that would normally come easily.
The Importance of Learning Through Play
Play is, of course, fun for children, but it’s also an important developmental activity. Play helps children to learn through experimentation and observation and often involves problem-solving, analytical, and motor skills.
Play shapes the brain by building and strengthening neural connections and may even increase the ability and potential for learning new skills later in life. The type of brain development that is stimulated by play cannot be replicated with any other activity.
Children who have ample opportunity to play freely develop better language skills, improved memory and cognitive skills, can regulate their behaviour and emotions more easily, and often do better at school later.
Relationships and Social Development
A child’s relationships with his parents, peers, and other caregivers shape his view of the world and help him to learn important social skills. At around the age of two or three, children advance from playing in parallel to playing together with others, which promotes language development as well as learning how to interact and communicate with others and solve conflicts.
Emotional and social development starts from the very first days of an infant’s life. Children who feel safe and secure, surrounded by loving adults will have the confidence to explore the world around them and will find it easier to develop healthy supportive relationships as an adult.
Nurturing and positive relationships with adults are vital at this critical stage of development. This is important for every person the child has regular interaction with – including caregivers and teachers, as well as his parents.
It’s therefore important when choosing a kindergarten, nursery, or a daycare facility for a young child to make sure it is staffed with attentive, caring individuals, as well as providing a stimulating environment for play and learning.
The First 5 Years – a Vital Foundation for Later Life
This critical window for development shapes a child’s future and influences their potential for learning long term. Not every parent or carer realises the importance of these first few years and once they’re over, this period of rapid brain development and opportunity for brain development will never be repeated.
By making sure children are provided with a stimulating environment, positive and supportive relationships, and plenty of opportunities for unstructured free play, they will be given the best chance of success in later life.