Let us start with a confession. We know very little about how we learn! And least of all, about the formative years 0-3 and 3-5. We split the 0-5 years developmental phase into two because, according to the more accepted theory (our knowledge about brains is still all fluid), a child’s brain rapidly grows in neural network density till the age of 3 and reaches a level that is several times the neural density of children in their late teens. And between the age of 3 and 5, the neural density almost holds up steady. On the whole, 0-5 years are the most ‘fertile’ years of the brain and require a very high-stimulus environment to just keep it nourished at the basic level. If these years are not well nurtured, ‘learning inabilities’ can set in faster than the natural fall in leaning ability.
Briefly, neurons are the basic unit of our nervous system and responsible for the ‘livewire’ beings we all are! Each neuron is connected to thousand others creating a network-like structure. The more dense the network of each neuron (i.e. the more the neurons are connected to one another), the more ‘livewire’ we become (i.e. the sharper and faster nervous system we command).
Expectedly, 0-5 years are very special years of development – learning impairment could be severe if these years are not richly stimulated. For example, if a kid is blind-folded for two years from the age of 3 to 5, then the kid cannot ‘see’ for the rest of his life despite having totally functional eyes and working neural network for sight. The brain ‘stops seeing’ due to disuse of the relevant neural network in the formative years. Importantly, the effect of two similar years, at another age, will be much milder.
Clearly, 0-5 years need to be handled with utmost attention and efforts. The following are some of the key influences in the 0-5 development years:
- Quality of language spoken to the child
- Quantity of language spoken to the child
- Interactive and intelligent environment creating high-potential learning opportunities – one way to get there is to limit exposure to non-interactive medium such as TV
- Love and affection to ensure happy disposition at all times
- Physical activities, including fine motor skills
- Continuous appreciation for the (‘god gifted’) qualities such as the sense of fairness, truthfulness, cleanliness, seeking happiness etc.
- Self, as well as assisted, exploration of the house and neighbourhood
- Developing conscience – understanding what is right and what is wrong
- Exposure to music and art
- Experiences in empathy
The list is just to illustrate the kind of specific focus needed for nurturing children.
It may also be pertinent to know that something interesting and important follows the first five years of childhood – the neural connectivity density starts to fall off the cliff! Simply put, after the age of 5, children start to lose the ‘quantity and quality’ of the god-gifted neural networks for multiple intelligences* with every passing day unless there is concerted effort to ‘keep polishing the intelligences’.
The ability to learn and grow along the multiple dimensions of life steadily diminishes as we grow older unless we explicitly and adequately work on retaining and sharpening them. For instance, a child not exposed to good music or not trained in music, will steadily lose out the ability to learn music and after the teen years the ability to learn music will be constrained. This connectivity pruning, scientifically called synaptic pruning, continues for the rest of life, for every one of us.
*There are several theories on human intelligences but an easy-to-work model may be found in Howard Gardner’s Multiple Intelligences framework.