Generally speaking, babies are born with the number of brain cells they will have for life. However, at birth the cells are isolated due to limited connections within the same brain area as well as connections to other parts of the brain.

Over time, such connections are made with the majority of these developing from birth to 5 years of age. As connections are formed, “microcircuits” develop to support more complex brain functioning. The speed with which brain impulses are carried over these connections also increases with formation of myelin around the nerve fibers.

What we know now is that it is the complex connections and integration of multiple brain areas that support what makes us human: language, problem solving and social-emotional skills.

While maturation plays a role, the foundation of what makes us human is dependent upon day-to-day experiences, particularly during early childhood. It is akin to development of a foundation upon which a house is built.

Through supportive and stimulating experiences, children are most likely to develop the strong foundation needed to support later learning. If placed on a positive developmental trajectory, continued positive skill growth is more likely.

What is interesting is that at birth, three brain areas are “online:” primary, visual and auditory cortex and somatosensory cortex that are, among other things, perceived as sensations of touch and position. Thus, one can argue that at birth, babies are “primed” to engage in social interactions. It is through day-to-day experiences that the brain’s cortex areas develop.

Parents who are being responsive to young children’s signals and needs provide rich experiences in language and assistance in accomplishing a task just outside of a young child’s ability. This is what supports development of a strong foundation.

Through repeated exposure to these interactions young children not only develop strong language and cognitive skills but also develop a sense of trust in others, the idea that “I can do it” and that others will be supportive even if mistakes are made.

Babies don’t come with instructions and this can be stressful when young children are difficult to soothe, more active than their parents and relentlessly demanding.

Today, the lack of high quality, affordable child care for working parents trying to keep the family sheltered, fed and clothed is of significant concern. High quality child care is based not only on providing responsive and stimulating experiences for young children, but also the opportunity for parents to grow the set of skills that will build their young child’s solid foundation.

With significant support from The Moody Foundation and other Galveston, Houston and Texas based private foundations and in partnership with the Galveston Independent School District, the Moody Early Childhood Center is beginning to fill the need for family centered, high quality and financially accessible early childhood educational opportunities for Galveston Island children.

Karen E. Smith, Ph.D. is a clinical professor in pediatrics at UTMB and sits on the Advisory Board for the Moody Early Childhood Center.

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(1) comment

Lynn Burke

I would only add to this excellent essay, that reading is one activity that allows parents to share all these developmental activities with their children. Reading aloud engages sight, sound, touch, and of course, gives parents a chance to hold their child and spend some quiet time together.

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