Brain development and child’s play

It is known that brain remains ‘plastic’ throughout life, but trajectories are set during the prenatal period and early childhood. Brain development is very rapid especially in the first two to three years. Although the sculpting of the brain actively continues for the next 20 years or more, early life experiences will affect your responses throughout life. Lot of health and behavioral disorders are related to how the brain has developed in its earliest period. If we want to change developmental trajectories for children, early interventions can make a huge difference.

And what’s happening during the first few years in child’s brain?

Before a baby is born, more neurons and synapses are developed than the child will need but most of the surplus neurons have disappeared by the time of birth. Also during the first three years the number of neurons remains stable, but the number of synapses significantly increases. By age three, the child’s brain has about 1,000 trillion synapses or about twice the number of an adult’s brain and is two and a half times more active. In first decade of life synapses remain super-saturated. After that, a decrease in density is obvious. By late adolescence about half of the brain’s synapses have been discarded.

Those synapses that are not used are discarded, and the ones that are used by everyday experience remain active. The early experiences of children play a critical role in determining the wiring of the brain and probably, the range and quality of the child’s intellectual abilities. As the child grows, a complex system of synapses or neural pathways is being formed. The pathways that are often activated or used are protected and retained into adulthood.

The developing cortex is altered by many pre- and postnatal events, including sensory and motor experience, parent-child relationships, play, stress, hormones and psychoactive drugs.

Healthy, engaged, care giving parents are the best brain supports a child can have. There is a connection between touch, the skin and brain development. Tactile stimulation by caregivers is very important for the brain development. The caregiver’s behavior is transferred to the child and has affect on the lifelong health of the infant via later stress activity.

In addition to caring parents, child’s experience and stimuli rich environment is very important for the child’s development.

And why is child’s play so important?

There are a few reasons.

All healthy young mammals play. Infant animals and humans engage in their first playful games shortly after birth because of built-in neural mechanisms. Unlike human infant, animal infant initiate early game and parents only encourage and mediate the game. But, because the human infant’s period of helplessness and motor immaturity is relatively long, parents of human infants must do both: initiate and give structure to play. That structure acts as a scaffolding for development.

The game is necessary to create complex neural connections and more complex neural connections result in a more complex game.

The early games of animals and humans equip them for the skills they will need in later life. Animals through play practice skills that enable them to survive, such as escape games such as mock flight and the stronger carnivores, playing stalking, pouncing, capturing games. Human infants and young children practice motor, language and negotiation skills. Across cultures boys and girls play differently. Boys are more likely to engage in more rough play and use toys like guns, swords, while girls more often rehearse motherhood and housekeeping roles with dolls and utensils. These differences are largely a result of socialization.

Play is essential for healthy development. The links between neuroscience and development are not clearly established but there are more and more evidences about how the brain develops and the linkages with language, emotions, movement, socialization, and cognition. We know that early childhood experiences exert a dramatic, precise impact on the creation of neural circuits and connections, and they are important for the creation of various developmental abilities. There is also strong evidence of developmental disabilities in children who are deprived. Children who do not play much or are rarely touched develop brains 20% to 30% smaller than normal for their age. Also, children who have not played more often exhibit behavioral problems and are often violent and have problems with the law.

For all those reasons, it is essential that parents provide love to a child, touch him, hug him, respond to his needs, provide a stimulating environment and encourage him to play.

Written by: Dajana Blazevic, Mag.psych.

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