Blueprint For Learning
Children learn difficult things without adult help. No one teaches them to walk or talk, for instance. They even eventually get around to reading and writing with a little help. Is it necessary to help young children learn–and should we try? Yes of course, but we need to understand what kind of help young children need from us. Hint: We mainly need to get out of their way…
Brain research shows that there are very specific conditions that build better brains in young children. We are talking about the frontal lobe of the brain where all of the high level thinking and executive functions occur. Abilities like problem solving, goal setting, finding connections, making decisions, taking initiative, concentrating, and controlling impulses all happen in the frontal lobe.
But there is more. The frontal lobe is also where children develop the ability to be a team player, listen to others, take responsibility, communicate positively, and help others. These are essential qualities that are not measured on school tests, but are very desirable in the workplace or in our relationships.
These Bird’s Eye View qualities can be exercised and strengthened in homes and classrooms that create a particular atmosphere that allows children to learn as they were intended to learn: Interacting and experimenting with their environment at their own pace. Let me get specific…
Parents and teachers must work hard to provide emotional and physical predictability and safety before serious learning can begin. Emotional security comes in the form of kind and positive relationships. Clear expectations for respectful and friendly interactions from everyone helps a child feel protected. Young children need a role model and specific lessons for how to speak and listen to others.
Things like routine, consistency, and hopefully a calm place of beauty and simplicity to work or play helps a child feel safe. If their space and routine is reliable, then they can devote their energy and thoughts to learning. Organizing the space so that it can be used and maintained by the child helps a child feel capable.
Remember that stress, whether from home or from school can ruin potential learning, and so creating a calm and peaceful setting is the first priority for cognitive development.
Movement Enhances Much More Than Cognitive Learning
We all know that young children are almost always in motion. Energy galore. To restrict movement is to restrict the body, the mind and yes, even the heart.
Through movement, we perfect our physical coordination and strength, of course. Through purposeful movement, we use more areas of our brain simultaneously, and learn more thoroughly. Through movement, we also begin to develop our knowledge about ourselves. Movement is imperative!
A baby that is not boxed in a playpen, a toddler that is not continually told, “don’t touch”, and a preschooler who is not asked to sit still and listen is a lucky one. The environment gives children clear feedback, and is the best teacher of all. When a child is not allowed to make mistakes or discover through trial and error, we are robbing him.
An area that is almost always overlooked when thinking about movement, is the psychological growth that happens when infants, toddlers, and three to six year old children have the freedom to move. Very young children who are free (and safe) to move at will begin to feel independent and in control. They learn to be resilient problem solvers and gain self-esteem and a feeling usefulness. The self-knowledge that is gathered by young children when they are given opportunities to learn through movement is huge.
I love the quote attributed to the young child in Understanding the Human Being by Dr. Silvana Quattrocchi Mantanaro, (whose work is honored in the video below):
“I can, I am capable, I am worthy of something, my collaboration is needed by the people with whom I live, my work is important to others, and I can transform the world around me with my work.”
Repetition Does Several Things
Allowing a young child to stay with an activity for as long as he wishes is very valuable for learning. The brain physically gets stronger with each repetition of a new skill. Our brains have billions of neurons that are connected by axons. With every repetition, a waxy coating called myelin thickens and strengthens a connection. When we repeat a new skill like riding a bike, reading, or driving a car often enough, the skill eventually becomes automatic. The myelinization frees up the brain so we can do two or more things at once. So, children obviously gain skills through repetition.
The more important benefit of repetition, is that when a child is given the freedom to repeat and experiment as long as he wants, it increases the chances for that optimal timing of interest and ability. Usually, the child stays focused and interested only until they have mastered a skill. There is an urgency to continue when you “almost have it.” Once you feel success, or experience that “Aha Moment” the best learning has occurred. Then the learner is ready to move on to more experimentation or something altogether new.
No teacher can know when that optimal timing or crest of interest and ability is going to happen for her students. That’s why allowing children to repeat and experiment until their little scientific souls are satisfied is such an important ingredient for brain growth.
Choices Are Important
In Montessori, the Science Behind the Genius, Angeline Stoll Lillard explains, “when a learner has a sense of control, research confirms that both learning and a sense of well-being are enhanced.” I know when I have a long list of things to get done in a day, that I like to make decisions about the order I do them in, how long I need to spend on each task, and how to do it. Finding ways to give children control within a clear framework or set of boundaries is important for strengthening their executive thinking skills and respecting their personal preferences.
Young children are certainly capable of choosing which coat to wear, what healthy snack to have after school, whether to put their pajamas on before tooth brushing or after, where to keep their library books so they are safe, whether to eat their snack now or after they finish some work, use a mop or a cloth to clean their spill, what shape to slice their sandwiches or carrots, etc. etc. etc. etc. Practicing the skills surrounding decision making not only builds a better brain, it makes a happier child.
This is a two pronged problem. While young children’s abilities to focus seem to vary greatly and have become a common concern in classrooms, adults are famous for interrupting children abruptly throughout the day in order to stay on a schedule. My feeling is that if adults understood the importance of uninterrupted time for quality learning experiences, they would examine if there was real need for so many transitions. Children can only learn to concentrate when they are interested and have uninterrupted time to practice.
The common kindergarten classroom divides its students into small groups of four or five, and rotates the learners every 20 minutes to the next required learning center. “Free Time” basically consists of 15 minutes for everyone to catch their breath before the “Merry Go Round” starts up again. The process is extremely adult oriented, but on the bright side, the teacher certainly gets to check a lot off of her To Do List! She is “accountable” as the bureaucrats like to say.
The down side is a little bit more concerning. It is believed by many, including pediatric neurologist Steven Hughes, that traditional schooling works really well for 1/3 of all students. One third of the children are killing time, and the other third are “disposable.” Not my term, mind you, but it means that we just can’t wait around for everyone in the group to figure it out. There’s no way around it within the current system, and teachers certainly are not to blame. They do their best within the traditional constraints of time and looming achievement tests.
This gift of uninterrupted time I am talking about has to be a carefully crafted combination of both predictability and novelty. I imagine many parents and teachers are already on edge imagining the free-for-all of children being on their own for up to 2 hours without adults structuring some kind of activity. Allowing children time and limited choices within clear boundaries is a worthy and very attainable goal, but it will not happen overnight. Children knowing the plan and expectation for behavior is one key to success, and while it is important, it has to be balanced with new and skillfully introduced challenges. Child-centered classrooms and homes are worth our investment of time and preparation.
We can’t have classrooms so predictable that they become stagnant. Novelty is what stretches and grows better brains. Eric Jensen, in his book Teaching with the Brain In Mind, reminds adults that there are two other important words to think about to keep children interested and concentrating: Find ways to engage and be relevant. Lessons that are made valuable to the child by relating them to their family or current interests in a fun, energetic, physical or energetic way will connect and motivate. If the adult can light a connecting spark, the child is happy to take it from there.
Think about what Maria Montessori said about the very different goals of adults and children:
“The work of the child consists of creating the human being that it has to become. The adult works to improve his environment, while the child works to improve himself.”
Adults who respect the way young children learn best, will use the
Research-based Recipe for Growing Better Brains:
Order, Movement, Choices, and Time