Did you know that it is possible to boost children’s brain development? Well, science says that it is! Even better, several scientific studies have shown that all parents have the capacity to unlock their children’s potential by proposing simple brain development activities at home.
The available studies suggest that early childhood experiences play a crucial role in shaping brain development in kids. Responsive parenting, nurturing environments, and positive interactions all lead to better cognitive and social-emotional outcomes.
In one study, researchers found that children, despite being in disadvantaged environments, displayed more school readiness and had better academic performance and social skills. Better still, these positive impacts persisted at all ages through 21 years.
The available studies suggest that providing children with appropriate experiences and activities that promote brain development during early childhood can help them develop important skills in childhood and beyond.
This article looks at the science of brain development in children, why boosting your child’s brain matters, and simple things that you can do to unlock their potential.
So let’s get started.
The science of brain development in kids
During the first five years of life, the brain undergoes rapid growth and development, and experiences during this time can have a profound impact on a child’s cognitive, emotional, social, and physical development.
Brain development is a process that starts from birth and continues until the mid-to-late 20s. While it is not fully understood why brain maturation varies in different children, we now know that this process is complex and is driven by both nature and nurture.
Here is a brief overview of the different stages of brain development in children:
- Prenatal stage: A baby’s brain begins to develop soon after conception and develops in different ways during the first, second, and third trimesters. It is during the third trimester that the brains develop most and that babies’ basic brain structure is formed.
- Between the ages of 0 to 2: During the first two years of life, babies’ brains undergo rapid growth and development, leading to the development of skills such as fine and gross motor skills, and communication skills.
- Early childhood: Early childhood is a period where the brain continues to experience rapid growth. The significant changes occurring in the prefrontal cortex are what enable your child to develop executive function skills.
These skills make it possible for them to focus and concentrate, remember information, make sense of the information that they receive, make decisions, and control their impulses.
Brain development is important in early childhood because this is when many fundamental skills develop and are reinforced. It is a period when delays in language, cognitive, and social-emotional skills can have an impact on your child’s social, academic and even psychological wellbeing.
- Middle childhood and adolescence: By middle childhood, many children’s brains are now well developed, and this is reflected in their behavior. They can make better decisions, practice self-control, and they are also better at managing emotion-provoking situations.
You’ve probably already heard that childhood is not a race and that while most kids develop at a more or less similar pace, others take their time to hit developmental milestones.
You’ve also probably already heard that most kids who seem to have developmental delays eventually catch up.
Brain development in early childhood works in more or less the same way. While some kids are able to develop brain-related skills and effortlessly accomplish tasks such as cognitive tasks or problem-solving tasks, other kids have a harder time developing these skills.
It is important to remember that brain development in early childhood varies and is ongoing, and that most children with delays eventually catch up as their brains develop.
Understanding brain development in early childhood
Your child’s brain development influences many of the skills that they develop. Here are several skills that depend on the level of maturation of children’s brains:
Cognitive skills: cognitive skills are the skills that enable your child to remember things, to relate different types of information, to solve problems, to make decisions, and so on.
Cognitive skills determine what and how your child learns. They allow them to process and organize information and to practice critical and logical thinking.
Social and emotional skills: While some kids are able to show empathy for others, most are not for the simple reason that they have not yet developed the skills that enable them to fully experience empathy for others.
The same is true for emotion-driven behaviors. Young children find it difficult to navigate emotion-provoking situations because their brains are still developing, and they are yet to learn how to deal with difficult situations. That’s why tantrums and meltdowns are more common among young kids, then gradually decrease and disappear as kids grow older.
Motor skills: your child’s brain development influences their gross motor and fine motor skills. Fine motor skills refer to their ability to use the small muscles in their fingers and their hands to perform tasks such as writing, dressing themselves, and grasping and manipulating small objects.
Gross motor skills refer to children’s ability to use their large muscles group and to develop skills that enable them to crawl, walk, jump, skip, run, and so on.
Language skills: As your child’s brain matures, their language and communication skills improve. In other words, their brain development makes it easier for them to listen, speak, understand and use written and spoken language, express themselves, read, and write.
I mentioned earlier that brain maturation varies in different children, and also that brain maturation determines what your child is actually able to do.
In other words, developmental readiness determines what children can achieve and a child cannot be forced to perform tasks for which they are not developmentally ready.
Here is a concrete example: you cannot force a baby who is not yet ready to walk or to speak to do so. They can only perform these tasks when they are developmentally ready.
That said, many children who are developmentally ready do not get sufficient opportunities to practice their skills. Also, the more you expose your child to a certain environment, the higher the chances that they strengthen their skills.
The good news is that there are many simple games and activities that can help reinforce your child’s brain-related skills. Here are three things that you can start doing today.
Three things that you can do to boost brain development
1) Provide a stimulating environment
We now know that children’s environments largely determine their social, psychological and academic outcomes. A child who is allowed to explore, to discover, and to try new things in a safe environment has a higher chance of developing the skills needed for success.
Providing toys and games that encourage exploration is an easy way to ensure that your child is exposed to age-appropriate challenges.
Certain games that you already probably have at home are particularly effective in strengthening children’s brain development.
All games that help them develop spatial awareness, problem-solving skills, creativity, hand-eye coordination, visual memory, attention to detail, focus and concentration skills, and so on are great for promoting their brain development.
Great examples include building blocks, age-appropriate puzzles, and memory games.
Executive function activities are really great at helping children strengthen different types of skills, and you can get many fun and high quality executive function printables for kids that will help them develop these skills and more here.
There are also really simple and effective fine motor activities that you can adopt at home. This article has everything you need to know about developing your child’s fine motor skills.
It breaks down fine motor milestones according to your child’s age and proposes specific activities to help you reinforce their small muscles.
2) Foster positive relationships
Positive relationships with caregivers, parents, and peers are crucial for children’s social and emotional development, which in turn supports brain development in children.
Remember that children need to feel secure and loved to thrive and to develop their emotion regulation skills.
There are easy ways to connect with your kids. You can: ask them about the best thing or the worst thing that happened to them (the more you are specific, the easier it is for them to really reflect on their day); tell them about your day; talk about current events in a way that they will understand; do chores together; and so on.
One of the easiest ways to connect with your kid is to set some time aside – even 15 to 20 minutes a day – to hang out (read, take walks, listen to music, play a board game, do yoga, etc). Here is a free 30-day challenge to help you get started.
3) Ensure that your child is getting sufficient physical activity
Everyone knows that physical activity helps boost the body’s “feel good hormone”, right? Many studies suggest that regular exercise is good for your child. It not only helps keep them in shape, it also improves concentration, reduces stress and anxiety, and stimulates brain growth.
In a study that sought to understand how sports influences performance, children aged between nine and 11 were enrolled in a school program where they had to walk, run or jog a mile every day outdoors.
The researchers then measured cognitive skills such as working memory, attention, and logic and reasoning skills immediately after the kids had exercised, and then 45 minutes later. While there was no marked overall improvement in children’s cognitive skills, kids tended to perform better immediately after exercise.
The study also found that the fittest students, meaning those who ran furthest on a fitness test, performed better on cognitive tasks.
The study shows that proposing regular opportunities for your child to keep active can help boost their brain development.
But exercise is not just about walking, running or swimming; even activities such as raking leaves, riding their bikes, playing hide and seek, skateboarding, skipping, playing with their hula hoops, and so on are all activities that can help kids get their daily dose of physical exercise.
The amount of physical activity children need varies depending on their age, but the World Health Organization (WHO) recommends the following:
1. Infants (under 1 year) need to practice physical activity such as tummy time in a safe environment.
2. Toddlers (1-2 years) need at least 180 minutes of physical activity per day, including a variety of activities that develop movement skills.
3. Preschoolers (3-4 years) should engage in at least 180 minutes of physical activity per day, including a variety of activities that develop movement skills, such as running, jumping, and climbing.
4. Children and Adolescents (5-17 years) need at least 60 minutes of moderate to vigorous physical activity daily, which should include activities that strengthen muscles and bones at least three times per week.
Final thoughts on children’s brain development
When it comes to brain development activities in kids, the general recommendations to support children’s wellbeing such as a balanced diet, sufficient rest, and enforcing screen time limits and curfews (for examples no screens after a certain hour) all play a role in the development of your child’s skills.
Although individual sleep needs can vary, and some children may require more or less sleep than the recommended amounts, the American Academy of Sleep Medicine (AASM) suggests that:
• Infants 4-12 months need 12-16 hours per day (including naps)
• Toddlers 1-2 years need 11-14 hours per day (including naps)
• Preschoolers 3-5 years need 10-13 hours per day (including naps)
• School-aged children 6-12 years need 9-12 hours per day
• Teenagers 13-18 years need 8-10 hours per day
Remember, if you’re worried about your child’s development, talk to your family doctor who will help point you in the right direction.