Bulletin #4356, Children and Brain Development: What We Know About How Children Learn

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Prepared by Judith Graham, Extension human development specialist, University of Maine Cooperative Extension. Revised by Leslie A. Forstadt, Ph.D. Child and Family Development Specialist, University of Maine Cooperative Extension.

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Woman and toddler at playLike constructing a house, brains are built upon a strong foundation. This starts before birth, and is very important during the first three years of life. Brain cells are “raw” materials — much like lumber is a raw material in building a house, and a child’s experiences and interactions help build the structure, put in the wiring, and paint the walls. Heredity (nature) determines the basic number of “neurons” (brain nerve cells) children are born with, and their initial arrangement.

At birth, a baby’s brain contains 100 billion neurons, roughly as many nerve cells as there are stars in the Milky Way, and almost all the neurons the brain will ever have. The brain starts forming prenatally, about three weeks after conception. Before birth, the brain produces trillions more neurons and “synapses” (connections between the brain cells) than it needs. During the first years of life, the brain undergoes a series of extraordinary changes.

In the brain, the neurons are there at birth, as well as some synapses. As the neurons mature, more and more synapses are made. At birth, the number of synapses per neuron is 2,500, but by age two or three, it’s about 15,000 per neuron. The brain eliminates connections that are seldom or never used, which is a normal part of brain development.

“Windows of opportunity” are sensitive periods in children’s lives when specific types of learning take place. For instance, scientists have determined that the neurons for vision begin sending messages back and forth rapidly at 2 to 4 months of age, peaking in intensity at 8 months. It is no coincidence that babies begin to take notice of the world during this period.

Brain Development (YouTube)

Scientists believe that language is acquired most easily during the first ten years of life. During these years, the circuits in children’s brains become wired for how their own language sounds. An infant’s repeated exposure to words clearly helps her brain build the neural connections that will enable her to learn more words later on. Language can be learned a multitude of ways, like casual conversation, songs, rhymes, reading, music, story telling and much more. Early stimulation sets the stage for how children will learn and interact with others throughout life. A child’s experiences, good or bad, influence the wiring of his brain and the connection in his nervous system. Loving interactions with caring adults strongly stimulate a child’s brain, causing synapses to grow and existing connections to get stronger. Connections that are used become permanent. If a child receives little stimulation early on, the synapses will not develop, and the brain will make fewer connections.

Stress can become toxic when a child has frequent or prolonged experiences like abuse, neglect or poverty without adult support. When adults are present to support a child’s experiences and help the child’s stress levels come down, stressors may be tolerable. Examples of tolerable stress include loss of a loved one, illness or injury, or poverty when a caring adult helps the child adapt. Some stresses are also thought of as positive stress, such as when there is a small amount of fear or sadness, or everyday challenges. In experiences of positive stress, the system can return to a calm state in a relatively short period of time. When children are faced with physical or emotional stress or trauma, the hormone cortisol is released when the brain sends a signal from the hypothalamus to the adrenal cortex, which is a gland above the kidney. High levels of cortisol can cause brain cells to die and reduces the connections between the cells in certain areas of the brain, harming the vital brain circuits. In other words, the wiring of the house can be severely damaged or miswired if a child is exposed to repeated and longtime stress with out the assistance of a caring adult. Babies with strong, positive emotional bonds to their caregivers show consistently lower levels of cortisol in their brains.

The Brain in Brief

Brain Structure

The brain is part of the central nervous system, and plays a decisive role in controlling many bodily functions, including both voluntary activities (such as walking or speaking) and involuntary ones (such as breathing or blinking).

The brain has two hemispheres, and each hemisphere has four lobes. Each of these lobes has numerous folds. These folds do not all mature at the same time. The chemicals that foster brain development are released in waves; as a result, different areas of the brain evolve in a predictable sequence. The timing of these developmental changes explains, in part, why there are “prime times” for certain kinds of learning and development.

Different parts of the brain control different kinds of functions. Most of the activities that we think of as “brain work,” like thinking, planning or remembering, are handled by the cerebral cortex, the uppermost, ridged portion of the brain. Other parts of the brain also play a role in memory and learning, including the thalamus, hippocampus, amygdala and basal forebrain. The hypothalamus and amygdala, as well as other parts of the brain, are also important in reacting to stress and controlling emotions.

illustration of a brain cell, showing cell body, axon, and dendrites

The basic building blocks of the brain are specialized nerve cells that make up the central nervous system: neurons. The nerve cells proliferate before birth. In fact, a fetus’ brain produces roughly twice as many neurons as it will eventually need — a safety margin that gives newborns the best possible chance of coming into the world with healthy brains. Most of the excess neurons are shed in utero. At birth, an infant has roughly 100 billion brain cells.

Every neuron has an axon (usually only one). The axon is an “output” fiber that sends impulses to other neurons. Each neuron also has many dendrites — short, hair-like “input” fibers that receive impulses from other neurons. In this way, neurons are perfectly constructed to form connections.

As a child grows, the number of neurons remains relatively stable, but each cell grows, becoming bigger and heavier. The proliferation of dendrites accounts for some of this growth. The dendrites branch out, forming “dendrite trees” that can receive signals from many other neurons.

Connections among Brain Cells

At birth, the human brain is in a remarkably unfinished state. Most of its 100 billion neurons are not yet connected in networks. Forming and reinforcing these connections are the key tasks of early brain development. Connections among neurons are formed as the growing child experiences the surrounding world and forms attachments to parents, family members and other caregivers.

In the first decade of life, a child’s brain forms trillions of connections or synapses. Axons connect to dendrites, and chemicals called neurotransmitters help send messages (called “impulses”) across the resulting synapses. Each individual neuron may be connected to as many as 15,000 other neurons, forming a network of neural pathways that is immensely complex. This elaborate network is sometimes referred to as the brain’s “wiring” or “circuitry.” As the neurons mature, more and more synapses are made. At birth, the number of synapses per neuron is 2,500, but by age two or three, it’s about 15,000 synapses per neuron. This is like going from 100 to 600 friends on Facebook, and each of those friends in turn, is connected to 600 more people! The neural network expands exponentially. If they are not used repeatedly, or often enough, they are eliminated. In this way, experience plays a crucial role in “wiring” a young child’s brain. Brain development does not stop after early childhood, but it is the foundation upon which the brain continues developing. Early childhood is the time to build either a strong and supportive, or fragile and unreliable foundation. These early years are very important in the development that continues in childhood, adolescence, and adulthood.

Sources: Shonkoff, J.P., & Phillips, D.A. (Eds). (2000). From Neurons to Neighborhoods: The Science of Early Childhood Development National Academies’ Press. Retrieved from http://www.nap.edu/catalog/9824.html

Shore, R. (1997). Rethinking the Brain: New Insights into Early Development. New York, NY: Families and Work Institute, pp. 16-17.

Day-to-Day Care of Young Children’s Brains

Research on early brain development and school readiness suggests the following guidelines for the care of young children:

  • Ensure health, safety, and good nutrition: Seek regular prenatal care; breast feed if possible; make sure your child has regular check-ups and timely immunizations; safety-proof the places where children play; and use a car seat whenever your child is traveling in a car.
  • Develop a warm, caring relationship with children: Show them that you care deeply about them. Express joy in who they are. Help them to feel safe and secure.
  • Serve-and-return: Like a tennis match, how you respond to a child’s cues and clues makes a world of difference in their learning. Notice their rhythms and moods, even in the first days and weeks of life. Respond to children when they are upset as well as when they are happy. Try to understand what children are feeling, what they are telling you (in words or actions), and what they are trying to do. Hold and touch them; play with them in a way that lets you follow their lead. Move in when children want to play, and pull back when they seem to have had enough stimulation.
  • Recognize that each child is unique: Keep in mind that from birth, children have different temperaments, that they grow at their own pace, and that this pace varies from child to child. At the same time, have positive expectations about what children can do and hold on to the belief that every child can succeed.
  • Talk, read, and sing to children: Surround them with language. Maintain an ongoing conversation with them about what you and they are doing. Sing to them, play music, tell stories and read books. Ask toddlers and preschoolers to guess what will come next in a story. Play word games. Ask toddlers and preschoolers questions that require more than a yes or no answer, like “What do you think…?” Ask children to picture things that have happened in the past or might happen in the future. Provide reading and writing materials, including crayons and paper, books, magazines, and toys. These are key pre-reading experiences.
  • Encourage safe exploration and play: Give children opportunities to move around, explore and play (and be prepared to step in if they are at risk of hurting themselves or others). Help them to explore relationships as well. Arrange for children to spend time with children of their own age and of other ages and support their learning to solve the conflicts that inevitably arise.
  • Use discipline to teach: Talk to children about what they seem to be feeling and teach them words to describe those feelings. Make it clear that while you might not like the way they are behaving, you love them. Explain the rules and consequences of behavior so children can learn the “why’s” behind what you are asking them to do. Tell them what you want them to do, not just what you don’t want them to do. Point out how their behavior affects others.
  • Establish routines: Create routines and rituals for special times during the day like mealtime, nap time, and bedtime. Try to be predictable so the children know that they can count on you.
  • Become involved in child care and preschool: Keep in close touch with your children’s child care providers or teachers about what they are doing. Occasionally, especially during transitions, spend time with your children while they are being cared for by others. The caring relationships they form outside of the home are among the most important relationships they have.
  • Limit television: Limit the time children spend watching TV shows and videos as well as the type of shows they watch. For very young children, there is no research evidence suggesting TV helps children learn. For older children, make sure that they are watching programs that will teach them things you want them to learn.
  • Take care of yourself: You can best care for young children when you are cared for as well. Learn to cope with your stressors so that you can help your child learn too. Your child’s well-being depends on your health and well-being.

Source: Shore, R. (1997). Rethinking the Brain: New Insights into Early Development. New York, NY: Families and Work Institute, pp. 26-27.

Connecting What’s Happening What Can You Do Window of Learning
Vision Babies can see at birth, clearly and with discrimination, especially objects (like human faces) eight to 10 inches away. Focusing both eyes on a single object farther away, the development of depth perception and hand-eye coordination all take more time. Brightness and movement are visible at any distance. You don’t need to buy fancy or high-contrast black-and-white toys to stimulate vision. But regular eye exams, starting as early as two weeks of age, can detect problems that, if left uncorrected, can cause a weak or unused eye to lose its functional connections to the brain. Vision needs to be exercised early on for good development. Visual acuity develops from birth to about age 6 or 7; binocular vision develops between ages 1 and 3.
Feelings Some of the first circuits the brain builds are those that govern the emotions. The first two emotions are opposites: feeling calm and relaxed and feeling distress and tension. Beginning around two months of age, these start to evolve into more complex feelings. Provide loving care, which will give baby’s brain the right kind of emotional stimulation. Neglecting a baby can cause brain-wave patterns that dampen happy feelings. Abuse can produce anxiety, excessive stress, and can actually damage the developing brain. Emotions develop in layers, each more complex than the last. The stress response develops immediately, from birth through age 3; empathy and envy begin to develop during the second year through about age 10.
Language Before birth, an infant learns the “melody” of its mother’s voice. During the first six years, its brain will set up the circuitry needed to understand and reproduce complex language. A six-month-old can recognize the vowel sounds that are the basic building blocks of speech. Babies are born interested in listening to human voices and the tendency to produce babbling sounds. Talking to a baby, especially in the high-pitched, singsong speech style known as “Parentese,” speeds up the process of learning new words and helps babies connect objects with words. Language skills are sharpest early on but grow throughout life. Recognition of speech begins at birth through ages 6 or 7; vocabulary starts growing during the second year and continues through adulthood.
Movement At birth, babies move in a jerky, uncontrollable way. Over the next four years, the brain will refine the circuits needed for reaching, grabbing, sitting, crawling, walking, running and jumping. Give babies freedom to explore within safe limits. Reaching for objects helps the brain develop hand-eye coordination and helps muscles learn patterns of actions. As soon as your child is ready for them, activities like drawing and playing a violin or piano will help develop fine motor skills. Motor-skill development starts with the larger muscles (like the neck, arms and legs) and moves to increasingly smaller muscles (like fingers and toes). Basic motor skills start developing shortly after birth; fine motor ability begins developing in the second half of the first year. Musical fingering ability opens up about age 5.


Gopnic, A., Meltzoff, A., Kuhl, P. (1999). The Scientist in the Crib: What Early Learning Tells Us About the Mind, New York, NY: HarperCollins Publishers.

Nash J. M. “Fertile Minds.” Time, February 3, 1997, pp. 48-51.

Newberger, J. J. (1997). “New Brain Development Research: A Wonderful Window of Opportunity to Build Public Support for Early Childhood Education.” Young Children 52 (4), pp. 4-7.

Reis, H.T., Collins, W.A., & Berscheid, E. (2000). The relationship context of human behavior and development. Psychological Bulletin, 126(6), 844-872.

Shonkoff, J.P., & Phillips, D.A. (Eds). (2000). From Neurons to Neighborhoods: The Science of Early Childhood Development
National Academies’ Press. Retrieved from http://www.nap.edu/catalog/9824.html

Shore, R. (1997). Rethinking the Brain: New Insights into Early Development. New York, NY: Families and Work Institute, pp. 26-27.

Information in this publication is provided purely for educational purposes. No responsibility is assumed for any problems associated with the use of products or services mentioned. No endorsement of products or companies is intended, nor is criticism of unnamed products or companies implied.

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