Early childhood development sets the stage for the remainder of a child’s life. Both positive and negative experiences interact with a child’s genetic inheritance and can actually affect the structure of the developing brain. The first three years are particularly important, as most of the neurons in the brain develop during that period. Parents, teachers, siblings and caregivers all affect early childhood development.
The Children’s Defense Fund (CDF) has collected considerable material related to early childhood development. According to the CDF, research going back as far as the 1960s shows that children who attended high-quality preschool or other early childhood programs showed improved cognitive skills compared to peers who did not attend such programs. They were more likely to complete high school or attend college and less likely to have problems with substance abuse or to be involved in criminal activities. These children were also more likely to display school readiness and to have better language math and art skills.
A child’s environment and experience has long-lasting effects, according to the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP). When a child’s interactions with other people are protective and personal, the AAP notes a child will have better adaptive abilities and coping skills. Abuse, trauma or neglect can result in behavioural problems, poor coping skills and delays in physical, social or intellectual development. The AAP notes that in either case, the child’s brain actually changes in response to environmental experiences. By the time a child reaches kindergarten, the brain is much less plastic, so early intervention for any problem is critical.
The importance of playtime
Play is one of the most important aspects of early childhood development. A self-learning resource for parents from Montana State University notes that play offers an opportunity to bond with the parent, to learn family rules and expectations and how to act in society. Children enhance their cognitive skills and learn social and motor skills through play. For example, drawing with a crayon or pencil enhances fine motor skills. Jumping and running strengthen muscles and improve balance. Playing with others improves language skills and socialization. Play also helps children communicate emotions, and practice creative problem-solving.
For the parents, this knowledge is key to providing positive experiences. Peekaboo teaches children that even if a parent disappears for a moment, he or she will be back. Soft, colourful toys offer both tactile and visual stimuli; when the parent engages in play, the child also feels emotional comfort. Bottom line? Play with and cuddle your children, no matter how young.