Practical Ways Parents and Educators Can Encourage Brain Development in Young Children

November 13, 2017

Some of us as parents or educators might be a bit intimidated when we hear the phrase “brain development” in early childhood. It may seem very formal when we talk about it in relation to young children. But the good news about brain development is that it is a subject not limited to experts. There is a lot parents and educators can tackle using simple and innovative ways to interact with young children. First, you need a little background about hands-on cognitive development.

There are lots of hands-on cognitive developmentally appropriate practices that can be used beginning at birth in early childhood, according to Ari Wubbold, coordinator and public affairs specialist for the Oregon Department of Education’s Early Learning Division. Wubbold, who helps oversee the Brain Building Oregon initiative, shared great insights and useful tips all parents and educators can utilize to encourage brain and cognitive development in infants. This may sound challenging, but it’s actually an exciting time for babies, parents and educators to engage in early learning and healthy cognitive growth!

Q. Tell us a about your role at Brain Building Oregon.

A. Brain Building Oregon is a website and resource for families and early childhood specialists. My role is to manage this resource and bring attention to organizations in Oregon that are using brain science to encourage healthy early childhood development.

Q. How does Brain Building Oregon work with the early education community?

A. Brain Building Oregon showcases organizations that have incorporated brain science into their service offerings for families. This includes children’s museums, early learning initiatives like Vroom, Family Resource Centers, and others. As a resource of Oregon’s Early Learning Division, Brain Building Oregon recognizes organizations that are providing valuable examples for parents and professionals in the field of early childhood education. We invite any relevant organization in Oregon to apply to be featured.

Q. Let’s talk about brain/cognitive science and early childhood educators. Why is it important for early educators to learn about this subject when working with children since birth?

A. Learning about brain science can help early childhood educators expand their awareness of what constitutes a “brain-building moment.” An example would be an early educator learning that talking to an infant helps to increase their brain connections—socially, emotionally, and cognitively. This simple piece of knowledge allows the early educator to look at their practices and routines and find where they can increase opportunities to add language development.

For example, they can find times during diaper changing, feeding, and other routine moments [to learn about brain development by engaging the child through interactions]. While talking to an infant through their day and care, the early educator becomes “aware” they are not only providing care for the infant but are also building connections in all regions of the child’s brain.

Q. Which principles should educators and parents keep in mind about brain science when applying these theories as they interact with young children?

A. First, every interaction with a child matters and builds brain connections. A child arrives born into the world as an already brain-developing being and everything from the tone we use to our physical touch contributes to that development. Brain science tells us children learn in the context of relationships, so the importance of building and maintaining safe, predictable, and trusting relationships cannot be overemphasized.

Second, the brain does not integrate information well when the central nervous system is aroused. Creating safe, calm environments is foundational to creating an effective learning environment. Brain science reinforces our understanding that when children are hungry, tired or emotionally distressed, they cannot effectively integrate new information.

Q. What kind of resources are available to early educators and parents to learn more about this topic? What should they look for, say, in educational/training courses?

A. I would recommend looking at the Vroom early learning tools. This series of 1,000+ free brain-building activities for parents and educators encourages “serve and return” interaction. Vroom is an excellent resource because it provides a “brain background” for every tip that explains why such interactions are useful (and the “why” is always important). Vroom is also multi-lingual and available via a free Smartphone app called Daily Vroom which is accessible at any time.

Additionally, early educators can always call their local child care resource and referral agencies (CCR&Rs) and ask them for more information about a particular topic and the CCR&Rs could arrange for a workshop on that topic. Community college courses in early childhood development also offer a great educational resources—including online courses.

Q. Do you have any additional tips for how parents and educators can incorporate cognitive knowledge when engaging with young children?

A. Brain science indicates that engaging both the right and left sides of the brain is important to understanding and integrating information. So designing curriculum with activities that incorporate both right- and left-brained activities is shown to be effective for brain-building and is supportive of different learning styles.

Lastly, early educators should include materials in the learning environment that are open-ended and allow the child to create multiple variations with the same materials. This could include art supplies like paper, crayons, Play-Doh, and items the child can manipulate, such as toys that can be stacked (blocks) or toys that link together.

Understanding the cognitive development of infants, toddlers and preschoolers is part of Functional Area 5 of the CDA Competency Standards found in the Essentials for Working with Young Children 2nd edition textbook which draws on the Council’s research and expertise, along with other contributing experts in the early childhood education field. Our materials provide in-depth insights on how educators and parents can best help promote cognitive/brain development in infants/toddlers overtime through informed interactions.

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