Experience is the Best Teacher

Mom smiling with baby

Did you know? Every interaction you have with your young child is affecting the development of his or her brain architecture. The impact you have is quite fascinating. Harvard University’s Center on the Developing Child (COTDC) was established in 2006 to explore exactly how this impact can be used to improve the lives of children, especially those facing adversity. By understanding the potential of your interactions with your little one, you have the power to help your child thrive during this critical period of brain development.

A quick tutorial on brain development

Early experiences, both good and bad, affect the development of a child’s brain architecture. This architecture is made up of billions of connections between nerve cells across different areas of the brain. And, it lays the foundation for all future learning, behavior, and health.

In your little one’s first few years of life, more than one million new connections form every second. Eventually, connections that aren’t consistently used are cut through a process called “pruning.” As a result of pruning, the remaining brain circuits become more efficient.

Before your child can walk and talk, he or she must depend entirely on you and other caregivers for every experience. Your child learns through these experiences during play and routines, and by observing the world around him or her.

Creating quality experiences is easier than you might think.

10 experiences that can make a difference

Positive and responsive interactions during play and simple routines promote healthy development and critical early learning. Even something as mundane as changing your child’s diaper can be made into a quality experience. For example…

  • Change baby’s diaper near an easy-to-see picture. Point to the picture and describe what you see. “This is a picture of our dog, Millie.”
  • Empathize with baby’s emotions. “You are so sad. You don’t like to lay down for a new diaper. I’m all done and now we’ll snuggle together.”
  • Give your baby a garment to hold. Describe its color and texture. “That sock is green. It has fuzzy dots that are yellow.”

Feeding your little one also offers great opportunities to create quality experiences. For example…

  • Describe any movements baby makes. “You are kicking my arm with your feet! Kick, kick!” Or, “I feel you squeezing my finger with your hand.”
  • Tell baby a story that includes his or her name. “Once upon a time there was a [boy] named [Name]. [He] loved to play with [his favorite toy].”
  • Talk to baby about your plans for the rest of the day. “After you eat, it will be time for your nap. When you wake up, we will go for a walk.”

Beyond routines, provide baby a balance of experiences that include both guided and free play, exploring nature, manipulating toys, and seeing and hearing new things. For example…

  • When your little one is relaxed and playful, take him or her in your arms, and skip around the room singing “Pop! Goes the weasel.” Stop, squat down, and then jump in the air whenever you get to “Pop!”
  • Carry your little one on a slow walk around the neighborhood. By carrying baby, he or she will be able to hear a running commentary you provide about things you both are seeing. Point to those things you’re commenting on, and describe them using color, size, shape and weight words.
  • Place a rattle in your little one’s hand and let him or her shake it to make noise. After a minute or two of free play, play some music. Hold your child’s hand that’s holding the rattle and gently help him or her shake the rattle in time with the music.
  • Next, stand, holding your baby in your arms, and move in ways to reflect the feel of the music.
  • Put baby face up on a blanket. Slide a sheet pan under his or her legs so that your little one’s feet can comfortably be in the pan. Then, pour room-temperature water into the pan and let your little one kick and splash while listening to music. Describe the feeling of the water on your little one’s feet.

Quality interactions between you and your little one provide a strong, positive foundation for developing and strengthening his or her brain architecture. Connections between nerve cells are reinforced through repeated use, positively impacting your child’s intellectual abilities, and giving him or her a greater chance to succeed in school and in future endeavors.