Should you start teaching your child the basics (numbers, alphabets, words) at the age of 4? How about 3? 2 maybe? 1 perhaps? Well, the answer is yes!
“Oh, no, please, don’t stress the children by teaching them early” you might hear some say. It’s not “developmentally appropriate,” some might opine. There are many excuses out there for not teaching children English and Mathematics early in their development. Yet, there is ample evidence that points to early education being critical (Please see Studies Showing Importance of Early Education on our blog page)
The most compelling evidence comes from brain development during the first 5 years of life. Don’t panic…this will not be a treatise on Neurobiology. However, it is important to understand some basic concepts. Neurons are simply brain cells – and they come in different sizes and shapes. Synapses are the connections between these neurons. During human evolution, the human body developed certain basic methods of dealing with the environment that are common to different systems in the body. One general method is to create a great excess of cells and then retain only those that are used. The “extra” cells, which are not used, or are not relevant or necessary, simple waste away and disappear (pruning). One last key concept to understand is the “Sensitive Period” – a time during development when experience has a particularly strong or long-lasting effect on the construction of brain circuitry. Receiving the correct type of experience during the sensitive period is essential for the development of particular abilities that rely on that circuitry. As an example, this happens in the brain and the developing immune system. Here, we will talk about the brain only.
The fundamental fact to understand is that experience helps shape the brain – literally. A baby’s brain at birth contains baby-brainbillions of extra cells and synapses – billions more than the baby will have as an adult. At birth, and for many years after that, but especially in the first five years, the cells and synapses that are used (stimulated) are the ones that live on through adulthood. The others are pruned (die). Given these facts, it becomes clear why it is important to expose young children to the basics of learning – language and numbers. There are many parents who will hear their middle or high school children say, “I am not good at math, I just can’t do it.” The reason is simple – that child was not adequately exposed to numbers when much younger, and those synapses were pruned.
If you are uncomfortable with all this Neurobiology jargon, and are not sure if this actually happens, then look no further than your everyday experience in language acquisition to see that the concept of Sensitive Periods is true. From birth to about four to five years, a child can learn to speak any language with a perfect accent. However, later in life, if you try to learn German or French, you might learn to speak it reasonably well, but you will never be able to learn German and speak it with native fluency and with a perfect accent in such short a time. Why? Those synapses responsible for producing that accent, or that fluency so fast, are pruned. Gone! Dead! The same phenomenon is true for learning anything…you need to start early, and you need to be exposed frequently to whatever you are trying to learn for the relevant synapses to be preserved. The concept goes one step further – these synapses, now preserved, need to be strengthened, just like a muscle needs to be strengthened by continuing to go to the gymnasium. So, continued stimulation of those synapses (Mathematics, English, Swimming, etc.) is necessary to maintain them at optimal functioning level.
Cognitive learning, as described above, is the bare necessity needed to succeed well. For example, knowing the alphabet and having a great vocabulary is necessary, but not sufficient, to write a good novel. One must also have the patience and persistence to sit down and write. Similarly, being good at English and Mathematics is necessary, but not sufficient for success. In order to succeed, your child needs to possess self-regulation, the ability to persist at “boring” tasks, delay gratification, and follow through on a plan (please read Why Boring Tasks Are Important on our blog page for more on this). Fortunately, if done correctly, teaching children English and Mathematics very early in life not only gives them a cognitive advantage later in life (the relevant synapses are preserved), but also teaches them how to sit down, be disciplined, have patience, and persist on completing a task.
REFERENCES AND FURTHER READING
Tough, P. How Children Succeed: Grit, Curiosity, and the Hidden Power of Character. First Mariner Books, NY. 2012
Aamodt, S., Wang, S. Welcome to Your Child’s Brain. Bloomsbury, USA.