Neuroplasticity is the brain’s ability to change and grow in response to experience. It means that the brain can create new connections between neurons, reorganise existing ones, and even generate new cells throughout life. Neuroplasticity is essential for learning, memory, and adaptation.
This is why it is important for parents and teachers to help children develop neuroplasticity from a young age, to help them build the brainpower that will stand them in good stead throughout life, an education expert says.
“Research has shown that the better start a child has during their early years, the better their outcomes throughout their education journey,” says Desiree Hugo, Academic Head: ADvTECH Schools.
“Early childhood development drives success in life, so raising the profile of this stage of learning in all schools and at home is so important, because that is where you inculcate a child’s love for learning, or their resistance to learning,” she says.
Hugo says in the early years, a child’s brain is more flexible and adaptable than adults’ brains, and they can benefit from stimulating this associated neuroplasticity in various ways.
“This is why children should not only be exposed to opportunities to learn, but also to develop their thinking abilities, to build the neuroplasticity around the brain. But the window of opportunity to enhance this is limited, which is why best results are evident if this commences in the early years.”
Hugo says strategies for teachers and parents to employ to ensure that children develop neuroplasticity during the early years, include:
- Encouraging curiosity and exploration
Children are naturally curious and eager to learn about the world around them. By exposing them to new and diverse experiences, you can foster their curiosity and stimulate their brain development. For example, you can take them to museums, parks, libraries, or cultural events. You can read books, watch documentaries, or play games with them, all the time asking them questions, listening to their opinions and challenging their assumptions.
- Providing a supportive and positive environment
Children need a safe and nurturing environment to thrive and grow. A supportive and positive environment can enhance their self-esteem, confidence, and motivation. It can also protect them from the negative effects of stress, which can impair neuroplasticity. Praise their efforts, not only their achievements.
- Teaching them new skills and hobbies
Children can learn new skills and hobbies that can enrich their lives and boost their brain power. Learning new things activate different regions of the brain and create new neural pathways, improving cognitive functioning. Learning new skills and hobbies need not be expensive – many opportunities for learning exist without needing to incur costs, for instance learning a new language together through online apps, learning to bake or sew, or to garden.
- Promoting physical activity and healthy habits
Children need physical activity and healthy habits to maintain their physical and mental wellbeing. Physical activity and healthy habits can improve blood flow, oxygen supply, and nutrient delivery to the brain. They can also prevent or reduce inflammation, oxidative stress, and toxins that can harm the brain. Encourage children to exercise regularly, play outdoors, or join a school sports team. As far as possible, try to maintain a balanced diet, with adequate hydration and quality sleep. It is of course essential to limit non-productive screen time and junk food intake.
Hugo says schools and teachers also have an important duty to develop neuroplasticity in children. This can be done through:
Active learning strategies such as hands-on activities, interactive discussions and problem-solving games.
Multi-sensory learning which will include plentiful visual aids, auditory learning and kinaesthetic activities which allow physical movement during learning.
Mindfulness and stress reduction which will include practices which positively impact brain structure and function, promoting emotional regulation and reducing stress.
The promotion of curiosity and exploration, by encouraging questioning and relating classroom lessons to real-life situations.
Individualised learning through differentiated instruction which recognises that each child learns differently, as well as feedback and adaptation which allows students to learn from mistakes.
The incorporation of cognitive challenges such as critical thinking exercises and the learning of new skills.