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Behold: The Three Year Old Brain

Posted on Nov 4, 2013 by

Behold the 3 year old brain

Brain 101

Now we know every baby is born with a different number of neurons.  That’s genetics.  Nature.  Beyond our control.  It’s probably a very good thing that no one hands us a piece of paper with a “neuron count” on it along with a birth certificate because it would surely shape our expectations.  We understand and expect that all children are capable of great learning even though we know technically, none of us are created equally in the brain department.

What we are most interested in as caregivers, is that every neuron grows thicker and heavier axons with each and every experience.  This growth is actually observable within 48 hours.  neuronExperiences are what builds stronger brains.

Repetition of the same experiences strengthens the myelin sheath, which is a fatty protective coating around nerve cells.  It’s similar to the insulation that surrounds electrical wiring.

The opportunity to repeat and practice new skills is critical for brain growth.

We  can control the number  and  the quality of experiences in our homes and schools.  That’s the Nurture side of development.  That’s what parents, caregivers and teachers provide.  Find out more about cognitive development in children at Better Brains for Babies by clicking here.

To explain it more specifically, once an experience has been repeated frequently, the brain does not have to actively think about it as much.  For babies, when crying is immediately followed by their mother’s voice often enough, they can calm more automatically and wait a bit to be fed.

For older children, if the skill of reading is practiced often enough, the myelin sheaths thicken, and the act of reading becomes second nature.  The child can read fluently without sounding out each and every word.  Remember first learning to drive?  There were many things to remember as far as putting in the clutch, shifting, steering, and braking.  Now that we have had many experiences, driving is automatic and that frees up our brains for talking on the cell phone (kidding).

Full of Unorganized Impressions

The child since birth, has been very busy learning and building her brain.  Every experience has been hungrily absorbed through her senses.  Sensations without words.  Random.  Unfiltered for the most part.  She has acquired a treasure chest of experiences through rocking, crawling, grasping, eating, playing, listening, watching, and more.  child smelling a flower

The young brain is engaged and absorbing without us.  No need to explain (although talking to babies definitely paves the way for language).  Our task is to provide opportunity.  There is possibility of new discovery every day, and we just need to improve the odds and then stay out of the way.  Make each discovery as pure and sparkling as we can, so she has beautiful and interesting experiences to absorb.

The Three Year Old Brain Changes

Once the child reaches the age of 2.5 or 3 years old, she begins to have an inner drive or need to begin sorting and organizing all of the random impressions she has been gathering since her birth.   Sometimes quite suddenly, two or three year old children can get upset if their routine is changed, if their shoes are not in the right spot, or if they can’t finish what they are doing.  What makes it harder, is they don’t know how to express that they need order in their life right now.  It’s up to us to understand what they are feeling, and do what we can to support them.

Children this age are built to learn through structured sensory experiences and repetition.  In the picture below, this three year old girl is fully engaged and absorbing without an adult explaining or describing the qualities of “size” as she builds her tower. Abbi-05-2011 (4)


Thankfully, no one is telling her she is building it incorrectly either.  The task of the adult  on this day was to provide a defined work area, the blocks, and a careful lesson before standing back.  Her big discovery today is, “I did it myself!” because the adult stayed out of her way.

After more practice, she will begin to see the order on her own, and solve it without help.  She received an opportunity to develop independence and resilience from her mother. What a gift!

“The child is a discoverer.”    Maria Montessori


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