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Grow & Thrive - Brain development

  • Vol 4 No. 4, November 2015

    Developing children's brains

    During gestation and the early years, children are going through the most rapid period of brain development that they will experience in their lives. In that time of rapid development, children use their relationships and experiences to build the foundation for their adult years. The neural pathways and circuits that are built in the early years will go on to have long-term effects on their education, health and relationships.

    Children’s families are the primary influence over the experiences that are at the core of this brain building, but all of the relationships and experiences that they have, including those with their educators and teachers, influence their growing brains.

    Brain development – the path

    Just like building a house, constructing a brain needs to be an orderly process.

    1. There is a phase for constructing neural pathways.
    2. Then, those pathways are pruned down to the ones that are most useful.
    3. Children also develop circuits, or links, between the pathways.

    The brain makes decisions about which pathways and circuits to keep, based on the child’s experiences, meaning that children’s experiences shape the foundation for their brain.

    The process begins very early, well before birth, and the foundation that is laid is fundamental. Just as if you build a house on a shaky foundation it affects the whole building, if you build a brain on a poor foundation – for example, one that’s interrupted by significant and sustained stress – then it affects that child’s whole life.

    brain development

    Stress and brain foundations

    Stressful events are, for the most part, a normal and healthy part of growing up. Positive stress is another way of thinking about these normal, short periods of low-level stress. When children are supported by the adults in their lives to cope with a stressful time – like getting an immunisation needle, or falling and scraping their knee – and the stressful time is short lived, stress can be considered to have a positive effect for brain development because of the opportunity it presents to develop new skills.

    There are two other levels of stress that can occur in children’s lives, which do not offer any benefit for brain development. Serious stress and chronic stress can each have a disruptive effect on children’s health and development. Serious stress, the second type of stress, might be an event such as a natural disaster or the death of a family member. When the child has supportive relationships that can help to protect them from the stress, serious stress is tolerable.

    The third level of stress is known as toxic stress. When a child experiences an ongoing stressful situation, and does not have supportive relationships to buffer the effects, the reaction to that stress can be toxic to their developing brain. Toxic stress could include violence in the home, parent abuse of alcohol or other drugs, or sexual abuse.

    Great relationships for great brains

    Relationships are at the foundation of the experiences that create children’s brain development. The back and forth interaction – the serve and return – that you have with babies and children supports their healthy brain development.

    The ‘ball’ in the game of serve and return is any kind of bid for attention from a child. For pre-verbal babies that can be eye contact, eye gaze and facial expressions. As babies grow, the ball changes shape to incorporate babbling and gesturing and, later, words. The sorts of interactions that are at the foundation of great relationships for great brains, come in all sorts of forms, but the unifying factor is adults who ‘return the serve’ in a way that’s appropriate and in sync with the child.

    Developing brains in the early years

    Our brains develop throughout our lives, and the early years – particularly between conception and 3 – are the most critical time for forming a great foundation for the brain that children will build on for the rest of their lives. 

    While the brain is fully formed when babies are born, there’s still lots of growing to do. Most of the connections between the brain’s cells are formed in infancy and the early years. These connections – the brain’s wiring – are what enable children to develop their skills and knowledge. That skill and knowledge development happens faster in the first 5 years that at any other time in life!

    The factors that form great brains

    There are a number of things that contribute to healthy brain development for children. These include:

    • genetics
    • food and nutrition
    • responsive parents, caregivers and educators
    • day-to-day experiences
    • physical activity
    • love and understanding.

    Early experiences, and the responsiveness of the adults in children’s and babies’ lives, are the most critical factors in children’s brain development.

    Play for brains

    In the early years, experiences gained through play are essential for children’s learning and development. Play is a great brain builder for kids, plus it’s fun!

    Quality play involves exploration, observation, experimentation, problem-solving, and learning from mistakes. 

    Through play, and the support of responsive adults, children can figure out how their world works and develop strategies to get through any stresses and difficulties. During quality play, children have time to communicate, puzzle through things, move, and learn how to be with adults and with other children.

    Play is also a great relationship builder between children and the adults who care for and educate them. The loving and responsive relationships that are seen in play are at the centre of responsive relationships that support children’s brain development.

    Development happens differently for every child

    Every child develops at their own pace, some faster and some slower than others. If parents are concerned that their child might not be developing as they should, it’s important to reassure them that children’s normal development falls within a very wide range.

    Most children will develop skills and abilities they need, often in the same sequence, sometimes at a different pace to their peers and even to their siblings. If parents are very concerned about their child’s development, encourage them to see their child and family health nurse or GP to get things checked out.

    Learn more

    The Raising Children Network offers terrific resources on early development

    The Australian Early Development Census has a fact sheet on children’s early brain development

    Learn more about how to engage families with the neuroscience of the early years.

    Watch this great animated video of how we can all be Brain Builders.

    Building brains – the school years

    In the early years of life, children are actively building their brains as they go through the most rapid period of brain development that they will experience. This rapid brain development forms the foundations for later learning – and for children to develop the skills and abilities they’ll need throughout their lives.

    One of the key tasks in this early brain building is developing neural pathways and connections within the brain. The process of making connections forms a child’s brain. This is influenced by children’s experiences and relationships, and impacts on their long-term health, relationships and education. 

    When children begin their school years, their brains undertake a ‘pruning’ of the neurons and circuits, and this process forms the brain they have as an adult.

    brain development

    Shaping the brain

    As you can see in the picture, by the time children start school they have developed a dense network of neural pathways. By the time they reach high school, they have pruned away some of those pathways, and strengthened the ones that they use the most.

    Children develop a diverse set of skills and abilities in the early years – including emotional development. These develop in response to children’s individual experiences and the influences of the environments in which they live, including relationships with their peers and adults.

    The role of teachers

    As a teacher, your relationship with each child in your class plays an important role in the way their brain develops.

    Brain development is an active process. Children’s interaction with adults and their experiences in their environment shape their brain, strengthening the circuits that they need, and letting the ones that aren’t so important fade away. By providing a responsive, diverse and stimulating environment in your classroom, you are supporting children to create strong adult brains.

    Learn more

    The Raising Children Network offers terrific resources on early development

    Watch this great animated video of how we can all be Brain Builders.

    Learn more about how to engage families with the neuroscience of the early years.

    Click on the the images below for Grow & Thrive information for families on brain development.

    You can also download, print and share this information. 


Murdoch Childrens Research Institute

The Centre for Community Child Health is a department of The Royal Children’s Hospital and a research group of Murdoch Childrens Research Institute.