Preschool Learning - Prime Times for Brain Development

1 March 2017


Here at Skilly-do we are dedicated to sharing with you as much valuable information about your preschool child’s development as possible. As I explore various aspects of development in my blogs, I feel it’s important to include information about human brain development. While I have reviewed volumes of research articles preparing for new editions of my textbook, I believe that you don’t have to be a scientist to understand how it relates to your preschooler. The following are some very basic things to know about your preschooler’s brain development so you know what to do to enhance it.

Brain development proceeds in waves, with different parts of the brain becoming active at different times. These “prime times” or “windows of opportunity” are when the brain is able to absorb new information more easily than at other times. This is especially true in the first three years of life, but it does continue throughout early childhood and adolescence.

Here are the areas and their prime times for young children’s brain development:

Language Development

The prime time for language development and learning to talk is from birth to 10 years of age. It’s important to remember that children are learning language during this entire period. However, the prime time for language learning is the first few years of life. Language skills depend critically on verbal input, or talking with your child, in these early years. Young children learn the grammar and meaning of their native language with just simple exposure.  

Although later language learning is certainly possible, it usually is slower and more difficult.  If you’ve ever studied a language as an adult, you know this is true. Many experts believe that the critical period for learning a second language begins around 5 years of age and ends around puberty, about 11 or 12 years of age. Experts believe that this is why individuals who learn a new language after puberty almost always speak it with a foreign accent.* So it makes sense to provide preschoolers the best opportunities for learning and growth during the time when their minds are most ready to absorb new information.  

Here are some easy ways to capitalize on your child’s prime time for speech and language acquisition:

  • Make sure your child constantly hears language during their early years. This is one of the reasons we’ve developed our Chatty-do (#chattydo) activities, to help you capitalize on this prime time for language learning.
  • So your child can hear language in a different way, sing with your child, sing about what you are doing. Sing greetings. Sing questions, too.
  • Talk about what you are doing with your preschooler. Read directions out loud when you are using a recipe together. Talk about what your child will be wearing as you dress her.
  • As your child is playing, ask your child to talk about what they are doing.
  • Read books together. Chat about the things you see in the pages as you read. Later, you can talk about books you’ve read together.
  • Play guessing games. Give clues and see if your child can guess what you’re talking about.

Visual and Auditory Development

The prime time for visual and auditory development, or a young child’s capacity for learning to see and hear, is from birth to between 4 and 5 years of age.*  Preschoolers need these skills to see and interact with the world around them. Young children need to see shapes, colors, objects at varying distances, and movement for the brain to perfect these skills. Exposure to a variety of sounds also helps their brain learn to process different kinds of information.

Here are some tips on on how to capitalize on seeing and hearing prime time:

  • Fill your preschooler’s world with all kinds of music-- popular, classical, vocal-- give it all a go. This stimulates your child’s auditory sensibilities.
  • Listen for different sounds you hear inside and outside. Talk about what you hear. Try to reproduce the sounds, too. Kids will do this naturally, like it or not.
  • Give your child the chance to see fine art in his everyday world.  You can find a multitude of sources for art prints on the internet. For example, Van Gogh’s "Sunflowers" painting is a colorful and visually stimulating print to hang on the wall in the winter. You can point out the brush strokes, the range of colors, shapes, forms and texture in this one print.  
  • Take your child to interesting places like a museum, a park, a crafts fair or car show to see different thing that stimulate their sight. Take time to talk about what you see. But be aware of your child’s attention span and check out only a 3 or 4 things rather than dragging them through an entire exhibit. It’s hard for your child to be stimulated when she’s overly tired.

Physical and Motor Development

The prime time for physical and motor development in children is from birth to 12 years of age.* Young children become physically ready for different aspects of motor development at different times. Your preschooler needs several years to develop the coordination skills to play catch with a ball easily, and even then the refinement of such skills continues into a child’s early adolescence. Because there are so very many physical and motor skills that are developing at the preschool level, there isn’t enough space to cover them all in this blog. We developed our Child Development Guide so that Skilly-do members can see a comprehensive list of the basic skills for each age level.  

There are some general tips to keep in mind for these developing skills:

  • Remember that the younger the child, the more space is needed for a preschooler’s safely navigating space as they develop their large motor skills. As you know they fall a lot and bump into things quite frequently.   
  • Try to include toys that help practice both large and small motor development, like large trucks and small blocks.
  • Challenge your child’s physical and motor development.  As your child masters one skill, for example rolling a ball, change it up and start using a smaller ball.
  • Vary physically active times with more quiet times for variety and for calming effects.

Emotional and Social Development

The prime time for emotional and social development in children is birth to 12 years of age.  Different aspects of this area of development, which require higher capacities, such as awareness of others, empathy, and trust, are important at different times in a child’s life.

Emotional intelligence is critical to success in life. The part of the brain that regulates emotion, the amygdala, is shaped early on by life experiences and forms the brain’s emotional wiring. Early nurturing, from birth through the preschool years, is important to learning empathy, happiness, hopefulness, and resilience. If a child feels safe and secure, and lives in a positive and accepting environment, learning these skills will occur naturally.*

Social development, which involves both self-awareness and a child’s ability to interact with others, also occurs in stages. For example, sharing toys is something that a 2-year-old’s brain is not fully developed to do, so this social ability is more common with toddlers who are 3 or older. There is a wide variety of social and emotional skills that develop during just the preschool years-- I suggest you check out our Child Development Guide for more an in depth look at these skills for different ages.

There are some general tips to keep in mind about this area of development:

  • Remember that preschool children are learning about being with others.  Expect them to be selfish and bossy at times. This is when we help them learn how to behave in social situations. Get ready to do this many, many times.
  • Try not to put your preschooler in situations that are potential problems. For example, it’s not a good idea to take a preschooler to a fancy restaurant and expect a quiet dinner. Choose instead a place that has quicker food service to fit your preschooler’s short attention span and need to move.
  • When your preschooler has strong emotions such as anger, it’s important to acknowledge the feelings instead of saying, “You don’t mean that.” Young children’s feelings are real. You both need to acknowledge and deal with them. A great example is, “I know you’re angry, but you don’t hit people.”

“The brain,” wrote the poet Emily Dickinson, “is wider than the sky.” And the more you learn about your child’s brain, no doubt you will agree. After reading these “brain basics” in what ways did they relate to your preschooler? What did you learn about your child’s mental development?  And, if you're looking to learn even more about your child's growth and skills, head on over to our Preschool Child Development Guide.

Try Colors in Action for some physical and motor skills activities. What Happens to Water is a great Skilly-do activity for language development as well. Per usual, let us know how it went!