Committee for Children Blog

Experience Required: The Key to Early Brain Development


You’ve probably heard it a million times: A child’s brain needs stimulation to help it develop. Actually, it’s not that simple. What a young child’s developing brain really needs is interaction. Although some brain development is genetic, much of it is influenced by experience and interactions. The brain needs and relies on experience. Children learn to process information through relationships with parents and caregivers, especially in the early years. That’s why watching an educational show is not as enriching or stimulating as one might think.

Caregivers’ interactions with a child literally shape the structure of the brain, because they stimulate the connections (synapses) that form between nerve cells (neurons). All children are born with 100 billion brain cells, and even though their brains are underdeveloped at birth, they’re ready to learn. The brain grows to about 80 percent of adult size by three years old and 90 percent by age five.

It’s through caregiver interactions that connections between the neurons begin to form. In these early years, there’s an ongoing process of wiring and re-wiring the connections among neurons. The first three years are often referred to as the “critical period” of brain development because a “use it or lose it” process happens. If there’s a lack of interactions or experiences, the synapses don’t form, and the ability to connect and grow is lost.

What Can Parents Do?

Science has shown us that language is an essential feature of interactions. Even the simplest of experiences, such as singing, reading, or
carrying on conversations with children create connections in the brain. Babies prefer human stimuli—such as a caregiver’s face, voice, and touch—over anything else. They innately turn toward people’s faces, and would rather listen to singing or speech than any other kind of sound. Studies have shown that children whose caregivers provide these interactions tend to develop more advanced linguistic skills than children who aren’t as verbally engaged. Because language is fundamental to so much of cognitive development, this simple action—talking and listening to your child—is one of the best ways to make the most of his or her critical brain-building years.

Young children’s brains are also malleable. In early childhood, the brain has the ability to repeat and relearn sounds, and that’s why young children can learn new languages with ease. After about age ten, however, this ability is diminished, so older children and adults find it more challenging to learn a new language.

Responsive caregiving is essential and includes a safe environment and sensitive, caring, and dependable caregivers. These things are also crucial for young children’s cognitive development. Interactions with caregivers define how young children respond emotionally and behaviorally and how they resolve conflict throughout their lifetimes. Making eye contact and responding to verbal and physical cues are essential for babies’ development. Engaging in imaginative play can help young children expand their language and understanding of emotions. It may not feel intuitive, but it’s most helpful when caregivers follow a child’s lead during imaginative play. Following along and asking lots of questions shows the caregiver is interested in what the child is doing and promotes development of self-control and emotional regulation.

The Social-Emotional Benefits of Interactions

Young children’s social-emotional development includes their ability to express and manage emotions and foster positive relationships with others. With positive and frequent interactions, children begin to develop core social-emotional skills, including the ability to identify and understand their own feelings, interpret others’ emotional states, manage and express feelings constructively, regulate their behavior,
and feel empathy for others. All these skills provide children the foundation and ability to develop and maintain healthy relationships.

The ability to understand and express emotions is the foundation for a child’s capacity to foster and maintain relationships with others. Children’s positive emotions attract others to them, allowing relationships to form. Negative emotions, or the lack of ability to express emotions in a safe, positive, and socially acceptable way, can hinder their ability to connect with others.

It’s no accident that parents feel drawn to give their young children the attention they need by holding, playing, singing, touching, and talking to them. These interactions are precisely what the developing brain requires for both cognitive and social-emotional development. Caregivers needn’t worry about how to get the neurons to connect or whether or not they are providing too much stimulation—they need only enjoy their children and ensure they’re responsive and interactive.