Early learning and the brain

Much like our physical development, our brain development occurs much more intensely at certain times in our lives. Knowing this, it is our responsibility to capitalize on the potential of these windows of opportunity and provide enriched contexts for learning. Our brain development also works much like building blocks-- it’s vital to lay down the foundation upon which other growth and development rests. How sturdy or fragile this foundation is, depends on the quality of our early learning experience and early learning lays the foundation for all learning to follow. Our first years of education matter.

·       Center on the Developing Child at Harvard University

This quote pretty much says it all. We are each born not only ready to learn but with an incredible drive to learn. Early learning actually begins before birth, but we are most acutely aware of its power as our newborn learns to work their complex little body to communicate with us through sound and movement, or our toddler discovers the rudimentary rule-of-three in humor. Take a moment to consider that pre-verbal toddlers can understand humor. That is impressive!

Our brains are the organ of learning and they are built over time as a result of innumerable interactions with others and the environment. Through experience, our brains bloom with billions of new neuronal connections, prune those that are not needed, and strengthen and quicken those that are. This process of neuroplastic blooming and pruning happens over the lifespan but is much more intense and arguably most important during early childhood.

Why is brain development most important during early childhood?  Our brains are not built in a willy-nilly way. There is order to how development builds upon, and is dependent upon, previous development. Continuing with the metaphor of a garden, our brains first create the planting bed, then plant the seeds, and finally continue to grow the garden.

Early childhood is that perfect time in spring to create the planting bed and begin putting the seeds in the ground. Early childhood is when the soil can be enriched and the seeds nourished so they can grow into an incredible garden. A child’s brain is more able to change in response to experience, better at the blooming and pruning, from ages 2-6 than any other time. Additionally, the brain development during this time is what all other development is built upon. Research in the social sciences and neuroscience has shown that the quality of early childhood brain development is evident into adulthood and predictive of social-emotional wellbeing, academic achievement, and even career success.

Considering this, it is easy to understand why an enriching early childhood educational program is vital for future brain development and the corresponding outcomes in school and in life. In the best early childhood programs, the interactions with teachers, other students, and the environment serve as gardeners nourishing this incredible time of growth and guiding the process of developing skills.

As the opening quote emphasizes, knowing what we now know, it is our responsibility to provide each of our children with early childhood learning experiences that capitalize on the brain’s ability to grow and develop, and recognize the importance of early development to support all development that follows.


Early Learning and the brain


Center on the Developing Child at Harvard University (2016). From Best Practices to Breakthrough Impacts: A Science-Based Approach to Building a More Promising Future for Young Children and Families.

Concepts of Childhood: What We Know and Where We Might Go King, Margaret L., 1947- Renaissance Quarterly, Volume 60, Number 2, Summer 2007, pp. 371-407

Daelmans, et al, 2017. Early childhood development: the foundation of sustainable development, The Lancet, Volume 389, Issue 10064, 7–13.



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