The brain and learning in the early years

The initial six years of a child’s life are the most important. At no other time in his life will a child learn as much as he does as in those first six years. Consider what you have learned in the last six years of your life and compare that with the amount a child learns in the first six years of life.

early years brain stimulationResearchers believe that in the early years (some cite the first eight, but especially the first four) the main learning pathways in the brain are formed. In 1964 Bloom, a professor at Chicago University, provided a summary of research findings over a century.  The findings state that in the first years of life the rate of development is very high and then slows down just before the fifth birthday. One can form an analogy between the main brain pathways and present day roads. The roads which have more traffic usually get widened but those with little traffic usually degenerate.

Among so many other things, in the first few years a child learns to focus the eyes, to see and differentiate between objects and colours;  to hear and to listen, to differentiate between different sounds, to speak and to understand speech; to make noises, then sounds and then form words, sentences and enter into conversations;  to taste and eat and to differentiate between tastes; to smell and recognise different smells; to touch, feel and differentiate between different textures; to sit, crawl, stand, walk, run, jump, climb, skip and co-ordinate body movements; to use a toilet, to brush his teeth; to ride a bike, swim and skate; to socialise with peers and learn what is and is not acceptable social behaviour; to learn manners and to wait his/her turn; to feed, bath and dress himself, including how to use buttons and zips and tie laces; to recognise letters, words, and numbers; to read, to write to add and subtract, and manners and morals. The importance of learning in the formative years cannot be over-emphasized.

Some researchers say that provided a person has efficient stimulation and a good diet, brain growth is rapid until five years of age and continues slowly between the age of five and ten. By ten years of age brain growth has usually peaked although, according to some researchers, the human brain is able to keep growing dendrites throughout life if it is stimulated. 

Everyone has a different way of learning according to their particular set of Intelligences and way of taking in knowledge. The six main pathways to the brain provide information either directly or subconsciously. Children learn through all the five senses – sight, touch, hearing, smell, and taste and, most importantly, through what they do.  Therefore, children need a positive, rich environment in order to progress, lay down and use pathways in their brains, and to learn effortlessly through play and experiences. Children also learn best when their particular Intelligence is being stimulated and accounted for. The picture below of a stimulated and unstimulated brain should assist in the understanding of this topic.


Children learn:

  • Through all their senses – through sight, touch, hearing, smell and taste and, most importantly, what they do.
  • Through play and experimenting.
  • From experience and repetition.
  • Through interaction with others.
  • Through imitation, praise and encouragement.
  • Through exposure and by the extension of their existing knowledge.
  • From direct instruction by an adult.
  • When their physical needs have been met.
  • When their particular Intelligence is recognised and accounted for.


Unique learning styles have an effect on how children learn and the daily program in a school should cater for all three styles of learning. Although this is critical in the early years, it is equally important to continue this throughout the child’s educational journey. However, we all have a main and secondary learning style, for example, one’s main learning style may be visual but the secondary way of learning may be auditory.

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The Visual Learner (learns best by seeing)

The child who is a visual learner needs to see body language and facial expressions to fully understand or grasp information. The visual learner usually wants to sit in the front so as not to be disturbed. About 60% of people are visual learners whose minds think in pictures. To cater for the visual learner:

  • Use visual aids such as pictures, puppets, actual objects.
  • In a classroom setting, tell stories, teach verses, have discussions with children seated in a circle so that each one can see her face.
  • Use facial expressions and gestures.
  • Make pictures by using descriptive or creative language to paint a picture in the child’s mind of what is being described or explained.
  • Have charts, photographs and pictures on the walls.
  • Make good use of an interest table.

If the child learns best by seeing, he will notice every little facial expression that is made to see whether he is being responded to.  A smile or smiling eyes will be taken as approval and will provide encouragement to carry on. 

The Auditory Learner (learns by hearing)

The child who is an auditory learner learns best by hearing or listening to people explain things to him.  He learns best in discussion times by listening to what others have to say. The auditory learner wants to hear the tone and pitch of a voice, what a voice sounds like, to fully understand what is being said. To cater for the auditory learner;

  • Have daily group discussions and interaction with others.
  • Repeat things often.
  • Teach things in story form, through songs and in poems.
  • Use descriptive language.

As the auditory learner learns best by hearing, he will be very aware of the sound of the teacher’s voice. If the voice is raised or if it sounds too strict he may feel the teacher is cross with him. When the teacher praises his achievements, the auditory learner will know how sincere the teacher is. Think of this child as having a radio in his head. The radio will play the words over and over and sometimes, even if he didn’t understand at first, he will play it again on his “radio” and will then understand. The auditory learner doesn’t have to look at a teacher to understand what she is saying and noises in the classroom may worry him when he is listening.

The Kinaesthetic Learner (learns by feeling and doing)

The kinaesthetic learner likes a “hands-on” approach.  He must touch, feel and do in order to learn fully.  He wants to “do it” – he does not like to learn by watching it being done or by hearing how to do it, he wants to do it in order to learn. To cater for the kinaesthetic learner;

  • Let the kinaesthetic learner role-play, or act out scenes from stories, poems, songs.
  • Ensure this learner has lots of breaks otherwise he will get bored.
  • Often change the way information is given.
  • Allow plenty of time for social interaction.
  • Allow the kinaesthetic learner to handle, hold or feel things.

The kinaesthetic learner appears to always have some part of his body moving. He will probably be a wriggler or a “toucher” who will want to be close to someone else whether that person wants it or not. He’ll play with his fingers and may even drum them to a beat, will fidget with whatever is available, and will probably change positions often while sitting on a chair or on the floor. The kinaesthetic learner often loses concentration and gets tired of being told to sit or stand still, so allow him to take an active part in his learning as much as possible.


Our brains are limited to the amount of information we can process at a single time. Therefore, it is imperative that children learn to concentrate as it is vital for memory and for reading comprehension. A child left to entertain himself from a young age will learn to focus and concentrate more than if he were to be constantly entertained.

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An impulsive child is always looking for the next task instead of completing and enjoying the task in front of him. Lack of sleep appears to result in an alertness deficit which hampers concentration. Whenever a child is grumpy or cannot concentrate or fights with his peers, the first question that needs to be asked is if the child had enough sleep the previous night.

In 1925 Dr Lewis Terman did a study on the effect of sleep on educational results. His study encompassed 2700 children of superior intelligence. He concluded that the common factor was that all the children were in the habit of having a good night’s sleep. It is not up to the child to ensure this happens; it is the responsibility of the parents. Children thrive on orderliness, consistency, routine, and set boundaries as this makes them feel more secure. Sleep is an essential prerequisite to a child’s growth and health. Children who get sufficient sleep are more likely to be alert and less likely to have behaviour problems. Although every child is different, the amount of recommended sleep for children is as follows:

  • 0 – 2 months – 10.5 – 15 hours
  • 2 –12 months – 14 – 15 hours
  • 1 – 3 years – 12 – 14 hours
  • 3 – 5 years – 11 – 13 hours
  • 5 – 12 years – 10 – 11 hours

Children, especially those who find it difficult to concentrate, need to have a good night’s sleep and a substantial low GI breakfast in order to maintain their concentration span.  Carbohydrates supply energy, but not all carbohydrate foods are the same and they behave very differently in our bodies. The glycaemic index, or GI, gives an indication of how different carbohydrates affect our blood glucose levels.  We need to eat low GI foods to sustain energy. The brain is fuelled, energised, or stimulated entirely by blood sugar, so when the blood sugar levels drop it becomes more difficult to concentrate. Although the children of yesterday ate the same amount of calories as those today, they were much more active and very few processed foods were consumed. Consequently, their food was comparatively unchanged from the field to the plate and the body was called upon to process the food.  This took quite some time, resulting in a feeling of being full and sustained. However, today much of the flour is ground to a fine powder, and cereals are processed with sugar added to them to make them more appealing. Therefore, most carbohydrates break down quickly and do not give a constant flow of energy.

The glycaemic index ranges are; low GI = 55 or less; medium GI = 56 – 59; high GI = 70 or more. If a child eats muesli (40) or oats porridge (63) he will be better off regarding blood-sugar levels, than if he eats Rice Krispies (82) or scones (92) for breakfast. Like any other piece of machinery, the brain needs to be oiled correctly. Among other nutrients, the brain needs plenty of glucose for energy and this is obtained by eating fresh fruit and vegetables.

Learning needs to be connected and not given in “bite-sizes” to children. In other words, learning needs to be connected in all areas of a learning program or curriculum and should focus on the whole child, meeting his physical, social, emotional, and intellectual needs. This is accomplished if learning is based around a theme and is called thematic teaching and learning.                

All the learning sessions in the Academy of Home Based Learning,, are thematically based, cater for the three main learning styles and include the Intelligences.

The brain and learning in the early years

by | Aug 31, 2021 | 0 comments

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