This book is inspired by a very real Umar, a boy who was two years old when he was part of the Leeds based nursery I worked in. He was fascinated with my keys and was determined to use mine at almost every single opportunity. It could be tiring at times, but for reasons I will explain below, I eventually tried my best to give him time to use my keys nearly every single day he was with us.
I’ve taught and cared for young children since 2007 and it is fair to say I have learned a great deal about how young children learn, grow and develop since then. In fact, the “young me” used to especially hate being with two and three year olds. I did not understand why they seemed to get so upset over the smallest things, why they never did what I told them to or kept doing things I told them not to. I got frustrated and angry in ways I did not know I was capable of. If you had told the “young me” that I would eventually love teaching and caring for this age group I would have laughed in your face!
I wrote this book because one day it struck me how the “young me” wouldn’t have been able to see Umar’s keen interest in my keys as honestly anything more than a minor annoyance. Luckily for Umar, and for myself, learning some basic information about neuroscience (the study of our brain and nervous system) and early childhood development has helped me see the incredibly powerful learning Umar was actually engaged in. As a nursery teacher, it also helped me see my role in helping his overall learning and development more clearly.
Let's get into it.
Our brains are mainly made of cells called neurons. The brain of a new-born baby has just as many neurons as a fully grown adult but they have far fewer synapses (connections) between them. Brain health and growth can primarily be measured by the amount and strength of these synapses. The synapses we form in childhood have long-lasting effects on the rest of our lives.
Like a plant that needs the right environment, nutrients and in order to thrive to thrive, our children’s brains grow best within the context of warm, secure and loving relationships with the important adults in their lives. Within these relationships, every experience (getting fed when hungry), sensation (a cuddle from a caregiver) and interaction (playing peek-a-boo) a baby or young child has helps form these synapses. Repeated experiences, sensations and interactions make these synapses stronger, and stronger synapses mean a stronger brain!
Amazingly, children aged 0-3 are forming millions of synapses a second. Again, similar to a houseplant that grows towards the sunlight it needs, young children gravitate to the experiences, interactions and sensations their brains are craving.
I wish when I first started working in nurseries someone had explained this all to me! Young children aren’t trying to drive us nuts, their brains are simply hungry for new experiences and this is part of the reason why they are so driven to “get into everything,” even when we wish they would take a break! Early childhood experts tell us that young children do their most important and quickest growing in the first 3 years of life. No one is ever too old to learn new things or change our ways, but if our brains were houses, this is the time when the foundation is being built.
So, bringing this back to Umar and his insistence on holding and using my keys at nearly every opportunity he had. Again, the “young me” would have thought something to the effect of: “I’m too busy. He will learn to do this anyway when he’s older, what’s the point of letting him try?” Admittedly, it took me a few weeks to really see his interest for what it was. Like all young children, Umar was demonstrating his strong self-motivation to learn and to be able to do more and more for himself. This time he demanded with my keys, gave him to time practise a new skill and I now know it was clearly helping him build strong synapses.
It was also helping him develop executive functions. Simply put, executive functions are our brain's ability to plan goals, achieve them both physically and mentally and cope with life’s distractions along the way. These are exactly the skills we all need to be successful in school and life. If we want young children to develop them for the future they need time, space and support to practice these skills today- even if their goals - like taking a very long time to learn to use my keys for one example - might appear pointless or “childish” to us at first glance.
Learning to use keys or doors did not come to Umar as quickly or as easy as he would like. Often times he would get upset because other children around would interfere in his plans, or he just got fed-up with not being able to "do it himself.” Then other times he had to deal with the fact that I was indeed too busy to give him the time he wanted with my keys. Like any other young child, sometimes he would come to tears and other times tantrums. The “young me” would have thought he was being naughty and unreasonable and not simply a young child overwhelmed by emotions he is not yet able to understand or manage.
Brain researchers call our ability to deal with stress and difficult emotions in a healthy and effective way self-regulation. We all know that young children can lose it over nearly anything, and as hard as it can be at times, we do not need to take it personally. As young children, we develop self-regulation by having times to deal with "bite-sized" bits of stress (playing chase, jumping off a height we are a little bit scared, doing challenging things, etc.) and, most importantly, by being co-regulated by the caring adults in our lives. Co-regulation for young children is simply lots of cuddles, reassurance, listening and love from a trusted adult. The only way babies learn to sooth themselves (or self-regulate) later in life is to be consistently soothed when needed by a caring adult. As they get older, young children also need caring adults to show them lots of empathy and support as they cope with challenges in their day to day lives.
To be clear, this does not mean shielding them from ever feeling stressed or frustrated, as these are both obviously unavoidable parts of life. Rather, it does mean listening to and helping children begin to name and understand their emotions: “You seem upset Umar, can I do anything to help” We can also offer our support simply by being attentive:“That lock is frustrating isn’t it Umar? Is there another way to try pushing it?”
In the end, none of this is complicated stuff. Young children’s growing brains thrive and grow on lots of love, lots of self-directed play and lots of conversations with caring adults. These are the true foundations for children’s future success in school and life. What I have learned about early childhood development and neuroscience has helped me see actually what an incredibly self-motivated learner Umar is, and indeed all young children are. Not all young children are into keys of course, but whether we understand it or not, all young children do have things they are fascinated by as much as Umar was into keys. Our lives can be so busy, but we all can do so much for young children when we give them even just a little time, space and support to their own interests.