No one can emphasize enough the importance of brain development in early childhood education. Today’s developing technology and research have allowed us to learn more about the brain, how it works and the critical periods for its development. We now know that through research conducted with rats’ brains that an enriched environment actually increases brain size (Diamond and Hopson, 1998). There is a new growing interest in developmental neuropsychology, or research in brain development.
It has been discovered that the first six years of one’s life is significant for the brain to develop fully. Most importantly Montessori’s vision applies to brain development. There is new research that coincides with the discovery that the foundation of neural structures in the frontal lobes of the human brain isn’t fully developed until approximately the age of twenty-four. This states that the brain continually develops and that adults and parents who provide the immediate environment of the child can do something to make this experience positive. In order to achieve this full potential a human being needs interaction with the immediate environment and sensorial awareness. This is evident with the child’s growing independence, coordinated movements, language and developed will (Lillard and Jessen, 2003).
So now the question therefore is “how do we best help children achieve the full potential of development of the brain?” There are several ways to achieve this according to Diamond and Hopson. They define an enriched environment as one that includes a steady source of environmental support, nutritious diet, stimulates all senses, atmosphere free from stress and enjoyable, challenging, allows social interaction, promotes development, and gives the child a chance to assess the results of their actions, all in all allows the child to be an active participant rather than a passive observer (Diamond and Hopson, 1998).
This idea is reflected in what Montessori perceives to be a prepared environment. The prepared environment allows the link for a child to reach into his world. Montessori defines a prepared environment to consider the specific needs of the child with concerns to their age of development, it is provides the child what they need in order to live such as physical and emotional security, it should be aesthetically pleasing and inviting this includes hygiene and appropriate furniture, and it has to have order and should reflect the interest adult has with the child. These are her main ideas but she also mentions that the environment has to allow freedom of choice, allows the child to act independently, and allows the child to learn to take responsibility for his actions. What Diamond and Hopson defines as an enriched environment to stimulate brain development is similar to the prepared environment by Montessori.
To become an active participant what better way to involve children than movement. Movement is now realized to be helpful and even essential for increasing learning, develop creative thought and a high level of reasoning (Hannaford). Movement has been said to improve the brain functions by improving the interconnections between the two brain hemispheres. We know that the left side of the brain controls the right side of your body, so when you move the opposite are and leg you are stimulating your brain to develop more neural pathways that ultimately help the brain function better.
Movement has also been discovered to strengthen the basal ganglia, cerebellum (coordinates muscle contraction), and corpus collosum (a fibrous bundle of axons connecting the 2 brain hemispheres. It also increases the production of neurotrophins, the natural neural growth factor between the two brain hemispheres (Lyons) and increase myelination. Myelination is an important process for brain development as it helps with better brain function. First of all, myelin is the brain fat that wraps around the axon and helps transmit electrical pulses. It is also found to be responsible for the tripling of brain weight after birth. As the myelin layer gets thicker the faster the transmission of information within the body and therefore improve brain functions. (Diamond and Hopson, 1998).
One of the methods that is fairly new that may help improve a child’s brain development is through movement with the science of educational Kinesiology. Educational kinesiology (Edu-K) is defined as “the study and application of exercises that activate the brain for optimal storage and retrieval of information”. It focuses on the “educational model”, the model of “drawing out through movement” (Lyons). One of the developed programs from that study is called brain gym. Brain Gym is a registered trademark for educational sensorimotor program development by an expert in child motor development, Paul E. Dennison, PhD. It consists of simple movements similar to the movements that children naturally do during the first three years of life. Yet the most help that brain gym can offer is that it helps lay the foundation for lifelong learning in young children as it has been scientifically proven that laterality skills help children learn, read and write and even speak (BrainGym.com).
Some examples or the principles behind the Brain Gym exercises are:
a. Crossing the midline of the body. Examples are cross crawl or any arm and leg movement that will cross to the other side of the body. Painting with and easel, dish-washing activity and window washing are activities that allow the midline to be crossed found in the Montessori classroom.
b. Lengthening activities or stretches. Most effective stretches are one that extends all extremities.
c. Energy Exercises. This might just be as simple as deep breathing, and activating the body through touch/caressing just by sliding the hands through the body or even tapping your fingers all throughout from the top of the head to ones feet.
d. Double doodles. This is drawing with pens using both hands and drawing mirror images from the middle of the paper. The benefits can include fun and easy learning, aid with literacy, improved gross and fine motor skills, increased self-confidence better communication and body awareness.
With the study of early childhood one always tries to find the best ways to stimulate the development in children. One area that remained a puzzle in the past was brain development. With the current interest and research, understanding of brain development has broadened and ways to concretely help this phenomenon has been developed.
One of the many facets for development, found in movement, have been revitalized and found ways to also help brain development in children. Movement is important and it can help a child build a good foundation for learning.