Traditionally, starting kindergarten at the age of 5 was considered to be the beginning of a child’s formal learning. The years prior to the launching of a child’s educational career were typically thought to consist of free time to play, explore, and discover within the confines of the home under the watchful supervision of stay at home mothers. These days we may consider that model of childhood to be quaint and outdated as more mothers have entered the workforce and children are likely to have experienced some form of institutionalized childcare or preschool setting before kindergarten. Over the past 30 years research on child development has demonstrated the critical importance of the first five years of life in laying the foundation for academic and vocational success. Why exactly are those first few years before official instruction of standardized curriculum begins so important?
The importance of the first five years of life boils down to three crucial elements that work together to define and establish the base for future health, learning and success. These include the formation of relationships and bonds between young children and the adults who love and care for them, the building of young brains and the development of executive function skills.
Building Social Bonds
Developmental psychologists and neuroscientists agree: the most crucial skill a child learns during the early years of life is to develop a strong social bond with a primary caretaker. Responsive interactions between an infant and caregiver have been shown to strengthen the pathways within a developing child’s brain. When a caregiver meets the gaze of an infant, smiles and receives a smile in return, a reactive interaction is initiated and communication begins.
Babies learn and develop important relationships while their brains grow and build vital connections that form a foundation for further learning and development. Research clearly demonstrates that babies respond to the sounds of the language spoken by the caregivers with whom they have relationships but show no signs of familiarity with languages heard in recordings or on television. Face to face, responsive social interactions between babies and caregivers result in critical attachment and the formation of strong pathways within the brain that lay the groundwork for future learning.
As with most things of value, building a brain takes time, commitment and energy. Infants start out completely helpless, unable to intentionally make movements or communicate desires. Deliberately focusing the eyes on an object and tracking its movement through space is a skill that requires several weeks to master. Going from helpless babe to acquiring the ability to roll over, sit, crawl, walk and then run with purpose requires the learning of balance, muscular strength and coordination originating in brain function.
Learning the skills of basic communication and reading social cues begins in infancy as little ones are smiled at, spoken and responded to and return the communication through smiles, coos and laughter. As the brain masters these basic forms of communication, it gradually builds on them, learning to produce more sophisticated methods of communication using language.
The Building Blocks of Executive Function
Developmental psychologists refer to the collective abilities of working memory, flexibility of thought and inhibitory control as executive function. Before reaching their first birthday, most infants begin to express signs of developing some of these skills such as remembering where to locate an object. By their third birthday, most children can follow two-step directions and have learned to solve simple problems.
Executive function skills become the building blocks for developing life skills that enable children to become successful both academically and socially. If given the opportunity to play and explore their environments in supportive, interactive settings with consistently caring adults, children can practice and develop the ability to plan, take turns, understand cause and effect, solve problems. Over time, children learn to anticipate possible outcomes, persevere, self regulate, and develop the capacity to concentrate on tasks at hand while filtering out distractions with patience and tenacity.
Executive function skills are a necessary component of school readiness and success in social contexts. The development of these skills throughout the early childhood years should be recognized, supported and encouraged within nurturing relationships between children and their caregivers.
During the first five years of life, the brain has the ability to build strong and lasting pathways and neural connections. Research tells us that although the human brain retains its ability to learn throughout its lifespan, the effort required for learning and building pathways within the brain increases over time. If a young child is given the opportunity to develop enduring relationships, a strong foundation for learning and executive function skills during the early years when the brain is most pliable, the potential for growth, learning, health, success and happiness will increase.