This article was adapted from information presented in the article “Understanding Brain Development in Young Children” by Sean Brotherson (2009).
A newborn’s brain contains 100 billion brain cells or neurons. These neurons are highly connected as one of their roles is communication, and amazingly a single cell can connect with as many as 15,000 other neurons. These connections are created through experience and learning and lead to a network which is referred to as the brain’s “wiring”. In the research, it is known that “cells that fire together, wire together”. So cells which repeatedly connect or fire together, will create a stronger, lasting bond and will therefore wire together.
For example while a child is learning to read the word “cat”, they are associating the printed word with the concept “cat” and the way the word sounds and even the relationship between the individual letters c-a-t. This adds to their network about spelling, language and reading as well as spoken sounds and problem solving. Hence, from birth our neurons allow us to quickly create connections that form knowledge, habits, thoughts, consciousness, creativity, memories and so on.
This neural development occurs in stages. A three-year-old child has formed about 1,000 trillion connections, about twice as many as adults have. The reason for this is that young children are vaguely aware of everything as they don’t yet know what is important. However, by the age of eleven, a child’s brain culls many connections that are not in use, this process is termed “pruning”. The connections and wiring that is left at the end of this is more powerful and efficient.
Researchers liken a baby’s perception to a lantern, scattering light across the room, where adult perception is more like a flashlight, consciously focused on specific things but ignoring background details.
See the ‘Synaptic Density’ image for an illustration of this process. However, it is important to note that this pruning process is based on the “use it or lose it” principle so that if a connection is not utilised, it will be eliminated to make neural space for the connections that are used. Therefore this is a developmental period whereby parents and educators should maximise learning experiences and foster a child’s capabilities. This will ultimately provide children with the best step forward as they grow and develop into successful little adults.