I don’t have children, and don’t expect to have any for a long time. Yet, I am passionate about how my community trains young people. I believe that investing in little kids–and even infants–has the potential to pay big dividends. In particular, I’d like to see smaller classroom sizes, greater opportunities for free play, and increased parental leave options.
First of all, let me expound upon the science of neural development. Although we have few memories before the age of three, these early years are full of mental development. By the age of three–when he had our first memories–we’d learned how to bond with other people, explain ourselves with simple words, organize our thoughts for future reference, and respond to basic social cues. Based on our experiences, our 3-year-old brains already developed lasting neural pathways that still have dramatic effects on our unconscious thought processes. As the grand majority of our thoughts are unconscious, this is of prime importance. Although adults can intentionally develop new neural pathways at any point, the early years compose an opportunity ripe with mental flexibility. All of this means that it’s much easier to have a dramatic impact on the future productivity of a 2-year-old than it is of a 20-year-old.
In order to foster healthy minds in growing children, we should value small classroom sizes and play time. A substantial component of early learning is through a relationship with an attachment figure–such as a teacher or a parent or a regular babysitter. In order for this to be effective, the adult needs to be able to “attune” to the child–to be aware of the child’s needs and respond to them in a safe way. This allows the child to learn healthy responses to her sadness, anger, joy, frustration, etc, based upon the model of the adult. While a talented teacher is able to be aware of the experiences of a small group of children, classrooms of 25 (or more!) children are much to large for this attunement to occur. We are defeating our teachers before a day of class instruction begins. Sufficient play time then allows children to actively form their own neural structures, focusing on executive decision and conflict management skills. A well-resourced teacher would model healthy emotional response, and play time would allow the child to solidify her own learning experiences.
Unfortunately, even “early childhood” education is normally considered to start after these first years. Although neural flexibility is still relatively high in this slightly older age-group, our community is missing out on a critical opportunity for us to invest in the future generation. I’d like to see this amended with much more generous maternity and paternity leaves. The United States is far behind many European countries in regards to parental leave; in Denmark, for example, both parents are entitled to a full year of paid leave for each child–and there is no cultural repercussions for taking said leave. Increasing the amount of time young mothers are able to spend with their babies will help our community’s vulnerable children develop strong, confident, secure neural networks.