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What You Teach Me Birth to Three

by Pam Schiller, Ph.D. | January 24, 2011 | Child Development

By Pam Schiller, Ph.D.

The first three years of life lay the foundation for lifelong learning. During this critical time, a child’s brain is busy wiring the foundation for vision, emotional stability, language development, motor development, thinking skills and much more. By age 3, a child’s brain is two and a half times more active than an adult’s and more active than it will ever be in his or her lifetime. Once the foundation is laid the high level of activity is no longer needed.

Thanks to the new imaging technology used in neurobiology, we can now actually look inside the brains of living children and adults. We can see the brain in action — how it grows, how it acts and how it reacts. We also are able to see how profoundly early experiences shape the wiring.

An unfinished organ

The brain is the only unfinished organ at birth. Babies are born with 100 billion nerve cells, called neurons. Only a small number of these neurons are connected at birth. Through experiences and interactions the infant’s brain will forge an estimated 1,000 trillion synapses. The synapses form pathways between neurological communities. Neural pathways that are used are strengthened. Those that are not used will eventually fade away.

There are critical windows of opportunity for wiring that should not be missed during these early years. These windows provide a timetable for when certain experiences are particularly important or when some skills are more readily learned. For example, research indicates that the brain begins its job of wiring for emotional intelligence at birth. The foundation for emotional intelligence, trust, is wired during the first year of life through the experiences the infant encounters. If the baby experiences a warm, loving environment where his or her needs are met on a regular basis, the wiring will be laid down for trust. However, if an infant experiences a hostile world where his or her needs are seldom, if ever, met, the wiring will be laid down for mistrust. One way or another, the brain is going about its work of wiring.

The power of positive experiences

The brain has a high level of plasticity during the first 10 to 12 years of life, and during this time wiring and rewiring are regular occurrences. However, when something is wired and that wiring is reinforced with repeated experiences, it becomes more difficult to change. Some researchers feel that if children don’t have positive experiences during the first few years of life that lead to trust by the time they are 3 or 4, chances are slim that they can ever gain this essential ability. Of further concern is that wiring that is corrected outside of a window will never reach the optimum level it may have achieved had the proper experiences been encountered within the window.

Windows of opportunity

The windows of opportunity provide the timetable for when specific kinds of experiences have the greatest impact on wiring and strengthening specific aspects. This chart shows the critical timetable for wiring and enhancement of wiring. The only window that shuts completely is the window for visual wiring. If babies don’t have appropriate visual experiences during the first two years of life, they will not wire appropriately for vision.

Windows of opportunity chart

So what do little ones need the first three years of life?

  • An attentive, “chatty” and “fully present” caregiver.
  • A calm environment.
  • A few stimulating and colorful toys. (Think less is more — don’t over-stimulate.)
  • Plenty of room to move.
  • Child-size challenges to stimulate thinking.

It is experience that wires the brain and repetition that makes the wiring permanent. The foundation for a lifetime forges during the first three years of life. We are the architects of that foundation. Our tools are the experiences we provide children from birth to 3.