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‘All Work and No Play Makes Jack a Dull Boy’: Why Early Learning for Children is Critical

90% of brain development happens during 0-6, the first few years of a child | Image credit: Reuters

90% of brain development happens during 0-6, the first few years of a child | Image credit: Reuters

As parents, it’s crucial to understand why early years matter so much for learning, in order that we can provide the rich experiences and range of activities needed for brain development and learning till seven years.

It’s an all-too-familiar meal time battle - kiddo refuses to eat without a video on the phone and harried mama/papa pulls out the phone.

But did you know 75% of that meal is actually going to the brain? The same young brain that is being built from the bottom up (pretty much like a house)…and which is now being bombarded by audio-video stimuli and passive yet addictive activity using the house analogy, it’s akin to hosting a huge party on the top floor when the structure is still shaky. It seems like harmless fun but leaves a mess, causes an overload, and in a rare case, the risk of collapse.

Going back to the starting scene, Is the child entertained? Yes. Is the child learning through the videos of rhymes put on loop? Since there is no interaction, not really. Is the child learning how to learn (meaning, building memory, attention and getting sensory input from touch-feel-taste-movement) Not at all.

And that is why we as parents, it’s so crucial that we understand why early years matter so much for learning, in order that we can provide the rich experiences and range of activities needed for brain development and learning during 0-7.

Why is 0-7 such a critical time for learning

90% of brain development happens during 0-6, the first few years of a child. While this entire stage is full of new learning and discovery- there are certain sensitive periods for development when the number of connections between neurons doubles! Early experiences during this time period influence brain architecture and which is why it’s vital to lay the foundation for learning properly- to enable a lifetime of learning success.

But this is also a busy and stressful time.

This is the busiest time for parents when they are not only busy with their careers and finances but also with caregiving for their own parents. Especially in the current scenario, young parents in nuclear families are time-starved and have started relying on the phone as a toy and babysitter.

In this critical period of development, when the brain is making 1 million neural connections per second, the smartphone is not actually making kids smarter but, instead impacting linguistic and fine motor skills, leading to physical and cognitive delays.

Young brains learn best through play, back & forth human interactions and a variety of enriching experiences over time. To achieve clear learning outcomes in the foundational stages (such as learning to read or cognitive skills), we have to move to a blended learning model, beyond edutainment apps that use rote learning and flashy visuals or noisy plastic toys that violate all scientific principles in giving a young brain the right stimulus for learning.

Montessori principles in an era of screens and technology

We are young parents and we’ve witnessed firsthand how Montessori inspired material and methods of learning can raise curious learners and lead to great learning outcomes.

While the Montessori principles came about 100 years back, from Maria Montessori’s observations of young children and how they learnt best, they’ve stood the test of time and hold true even today. Even when technology is being used to deliver, track and assess learning.

At the heart of Montessori education is the child- his or her preferences and interests and how they wish to learn. There is a great deal of emphasis on building attention, keeping learning material accessible, use of natural material, building a foundation of real and then only then moving to abstract. These are also 21st-century skills that enable self-care, self-awareness and social-emotional learning- these are also strongly correlated with resilience, good academic performance, and a growth mindset.

If you think 4-year-olds are jumpy and easily distracted, you should visit a Montessori classroom- one of the “highest-flow” environments where interest and curiosity lead to a sustained period of attention and child-led learning. What encourages this is the use of multi-sensory and play-based techniques, something we attempt to recreate through the KinderPass app and our online learning sessions.

What young parents should focus on

During 0-2 , the key is parent-child bonding and enabling the “back and forth” interactions that are so vital for development. For instance, a simple game involving taking turns to build a tower is actually the first step towards great communication and language skills.

Reading to our children is the most important activity that young parents like us, can do- if there is only one thing that you can do with your child each day- make it this. This will not only enable bonding but also build your child’s speech, language and vocabulary. Even if you do not have a huge library at home, there are thousands of suitable books available online for free that you could use. (There are even free read aloud videos of popular books that you could use)

Puzzles, stacking toys, nesting toys and wooden blocks are simple and inexpensive ways of helping children build their logic and problem-solving skills. Here too, opt for open-ended and versatile toys that spark creativity and imagination- toys that don’t do anything unless the child does something to it! Pegboards, stickers, construction sets, paint, and paper are accessible yet powerful tools for little artists, scientists and mathematicians!

Between the ages of 2-7, exposing children to a diverse set of activities actually lays the right foundation for them to further build on these skills – studies say this is the best time to engage children in music, movement, reading, maths, logic, languages and science.

Dealing with screen time

At present, due to social distancing norms, screens are inevitable and online learning has become the norm but it’s good to remind ourselves of both the benefits and pitfalls of screen time when it comes to the early years. For the ages of 0-2, screen time is not really beneficial. All health organizations (including WHO and AAP) recommend no screen time, with the possible exception of video calls with family and relatives.

For the ages of 2 and above, take breaks from the screen every 20-25 mins and limit passive screen time as much as possible. Opt-in favor of active screen time, which enables children to learn new things and explore their interests. Active learning involves interaction and taking turns. Good examples would be classes that expose children to music, language, and movement.

When it comes to online learning, parents should watch out for both content and context- passive consumption of animated videos might keep your child engaged but will interfere in actual learning and will not build on comprehension and understanding of concepts.

All learning in these years should be play-based as that’s the most effective and natural method for your child to learn, process, and store new information and make new connections.

This has also been recognized by the new NEP that lays emphasis on the importance of play-based and activity-based learning and the criticality of the pre-school years.

For the early years, Educators and parents should leverage technology for all the benefits it offers while still maintaining the balance between offline and online learning- as the saying goes, there is no app that can replace your lap!

The authors are co-Founders, KinderPass, an early stage learning platform.

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