Scientists confirm what parents and caregivers already know - how the child is raised has an enormous impact on his/her emotional well-being, intellectual level and skills for success. In addition to nutrition, dealt with in another advocacy letter, research is showing that experiences, coupled with heredity, literally sculpt the brain. A baby is born with approximately 100 billion neurons, or nerve cells, in his/her brain that communicates through tiny connections that form networks. These networks allow neurons to transmit information involved in sensing, feeling, thinking, learning and remembering. At birth, most of these important connections are not yet formed; neural networks are established in the brain in response to experiences. Every experience a baby has forms a corresponding network in his/her brain. Movement is a central part in acquiring these experiences and stimulating the brain. Experiences are like food for the brain. A rich diet of love and healthy stimulation causes the brain to grow and flourish. A positive environment nourishes the child's innate intelligence and allows his/her unique gifts to blossom. Conversely, an impoverished environment diminishes the brain. Unfortunately, many children's brains are starving due to a lack of attention, movement and the right kinds of experiences. Without the opportunity to be used, neurons can actually wither away and die. Fortunately, the human brain has an amazing capacity to grow and change throughout life. However, for optimal development, timing is critical. There are periods of opportunity, "prime times" during which the brain is particularly efficient at specific types of learning. In the first decade of life, the brain's ability to grow, change and compensate is especially remarkable. (See chart.) During this time, networks are forming at an astonishing rate - by age three, the weight of a child's brain has almost tripled! The young brain is like a super sponge, absorbing every experience into its neural architecture. During these first three years the brain is storing information and memories that will be the foundation for all future learning. Experiences in early childhood have decisive and long lasting effects on the holistic Source: DSHS development of the child. Split-brain theory: • Psychologists have shown that the left hemisphere of the brain tends to concentrate verbal and symbolic logical reasoning, while the right hemisphere tends to concentrate spatial and holistic reasoning. • Left hemisphere controls the right side of the body and the left hemisphere the right side of the body. • Since the brain is divided it is crucial to make connections between the right and left side. Focusing on stimulation of both brain hemispheres is therefore of major importance. • Classical schooling often focuses too little on stimulation of right brain hemisphere. • Already in prenatal stage the brain is using movement to get information, stimulate the brain and make connections between left and right hemisphere. • One way of achieving connection between right and left hemisphere is through movement that crosses the body’s midline Key development stages – primary reflexes and sensory systems The development of primary reflexes such as the asymmetric tonic neck reflex, the spinal gallant and the symmetrical tonic neck reflex are key development stages in brain development. Together with the sensory system these are the basic foundation for learning in the early years. If any of the key developmental stages are skipped it can cause severe learning difficulties. An example is a child who crawled for a short time, or not at all, might skip the development of right and left side body coordination and therefore left and right side brain hemisphere coordination, if this has not been mended by other kinds of movement. Primary reflexes Primary reflexes are movement patterns that emerge during fetal life and are critical for the survival of the newborn - e.g. infant rooting and suck reflexes. At birth a baby has no control over voluntary movement. The baby responds to environmental stimuli through the primitive reflexes, which are automatic stereotyped responses. As the nervous system develops, however, they are inhibited or transformed. The persistence of primary reflexes beyond their normal timespan (12 months) interferes with subsequent development. It can affect not just arms and legs, but eye functioning, visual perception, balance and the processing of auditory information. Retained primitive reflexes will also affect a child's sensory perceptions, causing him/her to be hypersensitive in some areas and hyposensitive in others. All these issues have educational implications. More than 70 primary reflexes are known. We will here discuss 3 important examples. The spinal gallant Stroke an infant’s lower back on one side, and their side muscles instantly contract. It is important in supporting front and back coordination and crucial for development of links between the legs and core of the body. If this reflex is not correctly integrated it leads to multiple challenges: • Fidgeting and poor concentration • Decrease in short time memory • Lack of coordination in gross motor activities • Low motivation for movement • Difficulties internalising speech Asymmetrical Tonic neck reflex (ATNR) The ATNR is activated as a result of turning the head to one side. As the head is turned, the arm and leg on the same side will extend while the opposite limbs bend. The reflex should be inhibited by 6 months of age in the waking state. If the ATNR remains active in a child at a later age, it can affect: • Hand-eye co-ordination - difficulties such as ability to control the arm and hand when writing • Continued cross laterality or ambiguity of laterality above 8 years of age • Ability to cross the vertical midline. For example, a right-handed child may find it difficult to write on the left side of the page • Discrepancy between oral and written performance • Development of lateral eye movements such as visual tracking (necessary for reading and writing) • Control of automatic balance • Bilateral integration (differentiated and integrated use of the two sides of the body) • A study revealed that 50% of children considered dyslectic have a non- integrated ATNR The symmetrical tonic neck reflex (STNR) The transition up into a crawling position is assisted by the emergence of the STNR, which enables extension of the arms and flexion of the legs at the same time. However, the STNR has to be 'switched off' before the baby can crawl forward as this involves a combination of flexion and extension. Crawling is a major developmental milestone. It represents the transition from fetal/infant movement, which is dominated by primary reflexes, to movement, which allows the young child to explore its surroundings independently. If it remains present in an older child, it inhibits cross lateral development and thus academic learning at all levels: • Integration of upper and lower portions of the body (for example, when swimming) • Sitting posture (tendency to slump when sitting at a desk or a table) • Poorly developed muscle tone • Poor hand-eye co-ordination • Attention The child needs movement and physical stimulation to develop and integrate the primary reflexes. Sensory systems: Perceptual motor foundations are laid Perceptual motor skills are developing by down by one year of age: three years of age: • Body awareness • Auditory perception • Bilateral coordination • Visual perception • Lateralisation • Eye hand coordination • Motor planning • Visual motor integration • Purposeful activity Developing academic readiness by age of Sensory systems imbalances: six: • Difficult to sit still and listen • Regulation of attention attentively • Complex motor skills including • Tactile defensive hand dexterity for cutting, writing, • Difficulties sitting up straight drawing, etc. • Clumsy, falls often or knocks • Organised behaviour things over • Task initiation, perseverance and completion • Self esteem and self control What can be done? Movement is a key factor in providing sensory stimuli for the brain. Through specific movement crossing the right and left body hemisphere we can make connections between left and right hemisphere. Movement, sight, smell, sounds, taste and touch are keys to brain development; especially efficient is movement crossing the midline of the body. Children’s senses need to be stimulated and encouraged in the first stages of life. Building, climbing, jumping, running, taking apart and rebuilding and watching is essential for learning. Discovering three-dimensional space and mastering them by movement, enables children to learn valuable concepts that are applicable in mathematics, reading and writing. Limited movement has implications for the development of the brain and the ease with which a child can learn. An active life with physical and mental stimulation is crucial for a child’s brain development. Quality ECCE programmes can provide this stimulation.
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