Supporting Children’s Brain Development

Helping them become the best versions of themselves

I once taught a four-year-old who had joined our early childhood centre after moving to a new house. After a few weeks with us, this child made a confession. “I’m not supposed to tell you this,” they whispered, “but I have a tutor who comes to my house after childcare to teach me about letters and numbers.” This child’s parents were focussed on their child’s academic development and, having chosen to attend our play-based and child-led ECE centre, they were concerned that their four-year-old would fall behind in their learning. They also did not want to offend us by implying that we were not going to ‘teach’ their child, hence the secrecy. But this blog is not about the challenges of keeping a secret when you’re a preschooler. 

This blog is about the type of brain development that occurs in children of this age group and how it impacts their learning. (Incidentally, that child’s inability to keep a secret is indicative of where their brain development was at!). 

One of the most common questions I hear from parents when they first tour through our centre is: 

“Will we teach their child literacy and numeracy or is that something they should be doing at home?” 

It’s a fair question. Parents naturally want to give their children the best possible start in life and we are often told, (usually by people who want to sell us something), that sooner is better. 

We’re told: the earlier a child learns to read, the more successful they’ll be as adults. 

Research on brain development suggests this is false, and this blog will explore the reasons why sooner is not better. 

We’ll start by looking at the four different stages of brain development. 

Brain development in four steps

It’s important to note there are many variables influencing brain development and the ages listed below are an approximation. Birth order in the family (the first-born’s brain often develops faster than the brains of subsequent siblings), sex (male and female brains develop at a different rate), plus other biological, environmental, and economic factors like genetics, safe and secure homes and relationships, and access to healthcare, etc., will all interact with an individual’s brain development. 

The Brainstem: the survival brain

Develops from conception through to approximately six-months-old (earth-side).

A functioning survival brain will, to name a few things, keep the heart beating, fill the lungs with oxygen, and utilise crying as a survival tool (babies cry when they are hungry, tired, in pain, and in need of the attention of an adult).

The Cerebellum: the movement brain

Develops from approximately 6 to 18 months old.

From around the age of six months, the cerebellum comes online and this is when an infant learns that crucial survival technique: movement. It might start with the child rolling over or using their arms to reach for an object and it gradually progresses into sitting up, crawling, walking, running, jumping, hopping, etc.

The Limbic System: the emotional brain

Develops from approximately 18 months and continues to develop for years – on and off throughout the teenage years and sometimes into an adult’s 20s and 30s.

The limbic system contains a set of brain components that help develop and control our emotions and reactions. These include memories which turn into the feelings that we associate with certain things, as well as activating fight or flight mode whenever we detect a threat.

The Cortex: the thinking brain

Develops from approximately seven or eight years old (often, but not always, earlier in girls, especially first-born girls).

Once children have started to learn how to self-regulate their emotions (and this development is not entirely linear), they can start to develop their ‘thinking brain.’ This is where children’s ‘academic’ learning starts to take off as the cortex drives reason, logic, perception, language, etc. 

Brain development is sequential

The crucial part here is that the brain must develop each stage in this order before it can move onto the next stage. For example, when your fight or flight instincts kick in under stage three – the limbic system – this is of no use to you without first developing your cerebellum in stage two. 

How do you remove yourself from danger if you don’t know how to move? 

Similarly, if we attempt to teach children logic by perhaps trying to reason with them, they are going to need to be able to regulate their emotions first. 

Here’s an example. 

Say you present your ten-year-old with five Brussels sprouts and the deal is they can have two lollies for every sprout they eat. Now imagine making the same offer to your two-year-old. 

The ten-year-old is more likely to reason that they need to do one thing they might consider unpleasant before they get two pleasant things in return. Your ten-year-old might consider this a fair deal, if not a good one. Your two-year-old, on the other hand, is more likely to throw the sprouts onto the ground and demand the sweets you have just alerted them to. 

The ten-year-old, in this situation, has spent time learning to regulate their emotional reactions to things and is now able to grasp reason, whereas the two-year-old is nowhere near ready to comprehend such a thing. 

(If you are keen to learn a little more about eating, here is our link to our blog about eating)

Children need time and space to develop their brains in the correct order

I recall spending several weeks in a childcare centre as a student-teacher as part of my teaching degree. Each day, all 40 preschoolers were called to the mat so they could learn the days of the week. They sang songs about the days of the week, they read books about ‘going back to school on Monday,’ they were shown what the names of each day looked like when written out on a whiteboard. 

Each mat time was the same and, each day, the teacher would quiz the children: 
“If yesterday was Monday, and today is Tuesday, what day will it be tomorrow?” 

The children’s responses were unwavering. There would be silence until a confident child would raise their hand with a guess. Their odds were one in seven! In the two-month period I was there, not one child could correctly answer the day of the week without it being a fluke. Some of them knew the days of the week as a ‘poem’ they had memorised. They could sing, Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday…, but they were not yet ready to comprehend what this ‘poem’ meant or how to apply it existentially. It was of little relevance to them at this stage. 

I had spent a lot of time with these four-year-olds and all of them were creative, intelligent, and playful people. When I learned about brain development later in my degree and into my career, this experience really illustrated just how important it is for children to be presented with learning experiences that are appropriate for their development at the time. 

Capable and confident: supporting children to build a positive self-image

Consider the following:

How might it feel to be repeatedly asked questions that you had no way of answering?

What would it feel like to sit a test each day on a subject you couldn’t yet comprehend? 

More crucially, as a child, what perceptions might you develop of yourself if you continually felt like you weren’t very good at doing or answering something, and often felt like you were failing?

The alternative to trying to teach children lessons they are not developmentally ready for is simple: let the children play. 

It’s worth repeating. 

Children’s play is their learning. 
Children learn through their play. 
Play is a child’s occupation.
Children must be given the time and the space to do their work. 
Children’s play is their work. 
Let them be children; let the children play. 

Here are two scenarios to consider:

Imagine an educational setting where a teacher has announced that today’s topic is cats so everyone is going to try drawing a cat and then practice writing the word, cat, below their picture. These are the range of reactions you would find in a typical classroom of young children:

1. The child who has a cat at home and is happy to draw it. They have a go at writing ‘cat’ by copying it out, which is met with praise and approval. This child is viewed as the ‘good’ child.

2. The child who doesn’t really want to draw a cat and isn’t confident writing but will do so because they want to avoid any negative attention. This child is viewed as one who ‘would do better if they applied themselves more.’

3. The child who is happy to draw but draws a dinosaur instead of a cat because they like dinosaurs. They don’t get to the writing part because dinosaurs take a long time to draw. This is the ‘has trouble following instructions’ child.

4. The child who chooses not to draw anything. This child is actually having a lot of trouble sitting still. They are trying to chat to their peers, some of whom are busy drawing, and eventually they get removed from the group for ‘being disruptive’ and ‘not listening.’

Now imagine a young child has chosen to spend their time with paper and pencils, and, more importantly, they can choose whatever they want to create with them. Our role here is to give the child that time and those resources, and to encourage them in their work.

 "I really like how you thought about those colours you used. I see you’ve moved your hand around and around to make those circles on the paper. Wow, your castle looks amazing. I wish I could go and visit it!" Here's the blog about how to talk to children about their art. 

The purpose of these comments is, in part, to help the child realise that they are capable and should feel confident when using a writing tool. When that child grows to an age where their brain is ready to start firing up its cortex and learn about writing, they are going to be able to pick up that pencil with the perception of themselves as being pretty awesome with a pencil in hand. Their brain is primed for this next stage of learning and their confidence is sky high. The ideal combination for being ready to learn.

Child number one from the first scenario above had reached a stage where their cortex was ready. Drawing a cat was meaningful to them because they could draw their family pet, their brain was ready and able to comprehend and practice writing, and they possessed self-confidence. 

Child number four, however, was still operating in their limbic system. They had so much energy and they would have been better off with the time and space to make some big movements – movements that would help to develop the core strength that is a prerequisite to keeping still when they are eventually ready to sit and write. The danger for child number four is their brain might not be ready to start developing its cortex for a few more years. 

Meanwhile, they are in an environment where they are expected to start functioning in this brain. How will they view themselves as a learner after years of ‘low-achievement?’ Where will that child’s confidence be when they are ready to pick up a pencil and write?

Learning is sequential

It is very important to remember that children’s play is absolutely rife with learning. Spend time appreciating all the things you needed to be able to do before you could sit and write, do sums, and grasp scientific concepts. When you observe children in their play, you can see all the foundational skills that act as building blocks toward higher-level learning. 

In the same way brain development is sequential, so too is complex learning. You can’t hand a child a pencil and teach them to write without first giving them the time to develop dexterity in their fingers, or time to hear and speak the language they are to record, or time spent with books where they can absorb conventions like writing left-to-right across a page. 

If you go to university, you experience each year sequentially. Each year works as a building block to the next. You don’t spend time in the first year trying to get a head start on learning how to pass your exams in the final year. You need to spend the time gradually developing the skills needed to progress to the next stage. It is a struggle to think of anywhere outside of early childhood where we are concerned with trying to get people to do things before they are ready.

How to give children the best possible start

The new saying to replace, sooner is better, is going to be: whenever the child is ready is good. 

The four-year-old who once whispered how their devoted parents had employed a tutor in the afternoons is no better off academically than any of their peers. There has been a lot of research on brain development to suggest most children will be more-or-less at the same stage, academically, by the time they’ve turned ten years old. 

Child number four above has the potential to be just as capable at writing as child number one once they are that little bit older and their brain development has, effectively, caught up. Any academic disadvantage they might be facing will likely stem from something entirely avoidable had expectations around their developmental learning needs been appropriately managed and catered for. 

To help children become the best versions of themselves, we need to: 

  • Understand brain development and appreciate where an individual child is at.
  • Adjust expectations around a child’s learning, their behaviour, and their reactions, accordingly.
  • Provide children with time, space, and appropriate resources to support their learning at each stage.
  • Focus on encouraging a child’s image of themselves as capable and confident learners and communicators. 
  • Trust the process.
  • Let the child play.

As always, reach out to your kaiako team if you have any further questions or you could try reading some of our other blogs about transitioning to school or how to set boundaries for your children

Aroha nui,



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