How many parents have fretted over their children’s mental development? The idea that our brains are a finite resource — where any damage or slowed development has no chance of recovery — is a scary one.
The good news? New research in neuroplasticity — the brain’s ability to change or recover during development or after injuries — has taught us that the brain is capable of far more than we ever imagined.
Not only can we learn new things when we’re young, but now we also know that changes to our brain can happen at any age. Of course, changes happen at a much faster rate during early stages of development (who hasn’t watched a young child learn and marveled at how quickly he or she acquire skills?), but the brain can lay down new neuropathways at any age.
Feeding the Hungry Brain
In many ways, infancy is a clean slate, where developing minds have the potential to learn and accomplish so much. While people are born with certain sets of talents or strengths, everyone has the potential to soar beyond those innate abilities if given the proper brain nourishment and education. This concept is crucial for educators of the young mind and body to embrace. We’re molding our youth into the best they can be.
Neuroplasticity research has provided us with proof that we can feed and nurture the developing brain. Even children born with brain injuries can actually develop neuropathways to acquire skills — including some previously thought impossible. The key: a well-rounded exposure to a variety of activities.
Experiences and activities actually feed the brain: Just like it’s important to have a well-rounded diet, it’s also important to have a well-rounded experience that feeds the social, emotional, physical, and mental areas of a person’s life.
Keys to a Quality Brain Diet
The great thing about feeding the brain is that what’s good for your child is also good for you. The adult brain, just like the child’s developing brain, is capable of altering itself to meet its needs. Learning new things at any age fundamentally alters the brain, developing what it needs to retain a new skill — and these connections are stronger the more you practice.
So what can you do to develop an especially strong, flexible brain for yourself and your children?
1. Start early. The sooner you start encouraging your child’s brain development, the better. You can begin exposing them to a variety of environments and experiences at a remarkably young age. Variety in movement, socialization, and environment is valuable to the developing mind. Allow your child to explore as soon as he or she is ready.
When it comes to yourself, it’s never too early to start. Step out of your normal comfort zone and try a new activity, put yourself into a situation where you’ll meet new people, and encourage yourself to explore an interest you’ve never pursued before. You’ll be amazed how the experience of learning makes you feel alive!
2. Allow experience and excellence. Your children are probably capable of much more than you realize. Over the years, our society has grown more and more cautious — and this caution can be significantly limiting.
Allow your children to explore physically, socially, and academically. Let them try something you don’t think they’ll necessarily excel in (used Microsoft Excel homework), and encourage them to enjoy the process. Take them into situations that will allow them to meet people different from themselves, and talk about the experience with them after. Encourage exploration of physical activities you (and they) aren’t used to.
Exercise actually assists your brain in a number of ways: It strengthens nerve connections, makes nerve cells multiply, and causes the release of chemicals that boost your brain’s health. Exercise also increases blood flow to your brain, feeding it physically as well as neurologically. Additionally, research suggests that people who exercise may learn new tasks more quickly than those who don’t.
3. Encourage inter-age play. Playing with children who vary in age is crucial to your child’s development. The need for your child to adjust his or her approach based on a playmate’s age builds skills adults use every day, like when they change our communication approach to match the person or setting they’re entering. Children who develop these skills early by having playmates in a wide variety of age groups are ahead of the game.
4. Exercise the brain. To grow your brain, you have to use it. Reading, writing, mathematics, workbooks, and other forms of academic work incorporate a number of different areas of the brain. Reading especially engages the temporal and frontal lobes, as well as several neuropathways involved in the development and decoding of language.
There are so many wonderful ways to grow and strengthen your brain by adding activities and experiences. Research is now showing we can remove undesirable neuropathways by intentionally changing our actions and reactions. Anxiety pathways, for instance, will shrink and disappear after a person has consistently responded to situations with self-soothing and coping skills rather than with anxiety.
The ability to shape and grow our own brains — as well as our children’s — is an exciting opportunity for everyone involved. So get out there and explore!